Reflections on a journey

Reflections on a journey

On the 6th of August, 2011, with a mixture of expectation and trepidation, and accompanied by a leader and support van, 14 riders and two passengers set off from Anchorage, Alaska on an epic journey to the bottom of the world in Ushuaia, and on to Buenos Aires, Argentina.    A week later, following a tragic, fatal accident, a non-riding related accident and what was a potentially serious riding accident, 11 riders emerged from the infamous Dalton Highway in a more sombre mood.  With some hasty repairs in Fairbanks, one damaged bike was brought back to service and the twelve of us headed south for 20,000 miles.

With a renewed sense of reality of the consequences of a moment’s loss of concentration, unpredictable road surfaces or the impact of the actions of others outside of your control, this was not just a longer biking holiday with a few friends that we had all done in the past.  We were about to experience, in the next 19 weeks, some breath-taking and truly varied landscapes from mountains to deserts to oceans, to ride some awesome roads and to face some challenging rough roads, landslides, suicidal drivers and animals, gale-force winds and torrential tropical rain, in temperatures from 0 – 47C.

This will be the concluding post of this journey, and will be a summary of my personal reflections on a long journey after a week of winding down in Buenos Aires.  First of all I’d like to express my appreciation for all the words of encouragement I have received from many of you.  For the motorcyclists among you I know that you have “ridden” many of the miles with me through the descriptions of the roads, and for the other travellers, through the photos and descriptions of the places I have visited and people I have met.  This was mostly a personal diary but one I have been pleased to share with friends and family.

Favourite places

Many people have asked me what my favourite place was.  This is impossible to answer as there is not a single criterion upon which one can make that judgment.   There are many places to which I should like to return because of the landscape, the cultural activities or the people I have met, or all three.  But also, the impression on the mind can be a consequence of the mood I was in on the day.

For spectacular scenery here are some of my most memorable scenes…..

The Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range, Alaska marks the Continental Divide and a sudden change in scenery in northern Alaska. Descending from the Atigun one drops into the North Slope and on to Prudhoe Bay, the northernmost settlement reachable by “road” in the Americas, and our first destination.

Atigun Pass on the Brooks Range - Dalton Highway - Alaska

The Top of the World Highway, 130 miles long through Yukon, Canada was a challenge as it was entirely a gravel road, but the scenery was spectacular riding the mountain ridge with distant horizons, and almost entirely deserted.

Top of the World Highway - Yukon

After the remote Top of the World and the Al-Can highways in Alaska and Yukon, dropping into the relative civilization of Alberta the roads generally improved from here all the way to Arizona in the North American section.  There were many opportunities to see mountains, glacial lakes and wildlife as we approached Jasper National Park and the Columbia Ice Fields.

Old Highway 93

Glaciers are always spectacular, although the Glacier National Park was devoid of them!  As we reached the bottom of the Stewart – Cassier Highway, one of the most enjoyable roads I have ever ridden, we encountered the Alaskan panhandle of Stewart and Hyder with access to the salmon Glacier.

Salmon Glacier - Outside of Hyder, Alaska

There was no shortage of mountain roads providing endless riding pleasure with eye pleasing views.  Chief Joseph Pass and Bears Tooth Pass in Wyoming were particularly memorable in the northern USA section.

Bears Tooth Pass - Wyoming

Yellowstone National Park is unforgettable, not only for its hot springs, geysers and huge lakes, but also for its size, taking several hours to drive across.   Old Faithful is of course a major tourist attraction located outside of the Inn of the same name, but perhaps the more impressive scenes for me were the lake and Grand Canyon of Yellowstone from Artists’ Point.

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Wyoming

Yellowstone Lake

Immediately south of Yellowstone you encounter the Grand Teton National Park, reflected in the lake.  On a sunny day there is no possibility of just driving past.  You have to stop and absorb the scene.  This was one area that I was driving “off piste” to visit friends Kirby and Judy in Wyoming, south of Jackson.

Grand Tetons

The section through Colorado, Utah and Arizona included some of the most striking scenery with National Parks of Arches, Canyonlands, Natural Bridges, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon.

Monument Valley

Grand Canyon, Arizona from North Rim

One of my most enduring memories was the road through Central Mexico.  As we left the desert floor which extends from Arizona, we entered into a high mountainous area which was reminiscent of the Himalayas near Shimla which I had ridden a couple of years ago.  I had not expected this scenery and the riding was fantastic, probably the best riding we did on the whole trip with 200 miles of twists and turns on good roads through cloud forest covered mountains on the way to Huejutla.

Southern Mexico - Cloud Forest

Entering Guatemala we encountered almost continuous volcanic features for the rest of Central America as typified by Lake Atitlan in Panajachel.  Guatemala, along with Central and Southern Mexico occupy a very special place in my memories of Central America.  The hard working and gentle Maya descendants were just a pleasure to be around.  The old colonial town of Antigua Guatemala, the former capital, was a time capsule, 200 years old.

Atitlan Lake, Panajachel, Guatemala

Antigua Guatemala

Panama was the first “modern” city we had seen for a while, since for the most part we had not visited the capital cities of the Central American countries.  The contrast of the old and the new and the historic context as the centre of Spanish Colonial Rule made it special.

Panama - The old and the new

Colombia was memorable for some of the heaviest traffic we encountered, tight and twisty mountain roads but also for the quaint city of Popayan.

Popayan Square at night

Ecuador was such a pleasant surprise.  With good roads, the bustling and historic city of Quito and more volcanoes! The unforgettable Quito cathedral and the 2 hour guided tour were a highlight.

Altar at Quito Cathedral

It is impossible to summarise Peru in a few worlds or pictures.  Spending more than 2 weeks discovering the deserts, canyons, altiplano,  cities and cultural sites of Nasca, Macchu Pichu and Lake Titicaca was not nearly enough to know the country, but provides a short list of places to revisit one day.

Canyon del Pato - Peru

Nasca Humming Bird

Altiplano village at 13000 feet

Cauchilla Mummies at Nasca

Macchu Pichu

The vast deserts of Peru continue into Northern Chile.  The Atacama is one of the driest places on earth.  Hot during the day and below freezing at night, it presents a formidable landscape for man and animals.

Atacama Desert near San Pedro

Crossing between Chile and Argentine several times following the famous Carretera Austral and Ruta 40 we covered hundreds of miles of gravel and dirt roads through some spectacular landscapes volcanic ash clouds, mountains, glaciers and villages tucked away in remote areas.

Carretera Austral - Tough roads, awesome scenery

Perito Moreno Glacier bear El Calafate

The city of Santiago was a highlight of the trip – clean, modern, efficient.

City of Santiago

The final push to Tierra del Fuego and arrival at Ushuaia, the “end of the world”, was in many ways a moment of realisation that the journey was coming to an end, and that the justification of a destination to create the journey had been achieved.

Fin del Mundo - The "End of the World" and time to head north

The return north to Buenos Aires crossed 2,000 miles of Eastern Patagonia and the Pampa, almost entirely deserted.  Buenos Aires with over 15 million people made up for it!

Buenos Aires - The Casa Rosada made famous by the film Evita

And no visit to Buenos Aires is complete without a visit to the Evita Peron mausoleum in La Recoleta.  The city is full of Evita memorabilia.

Mausoleum of Evita Duarte in La Recoleta, Buenos Aires

And the final country…..a quick trip to Uruguay provided a special end to the journey.  In wind-down mode and ready for some relaxation, Colonia del Sacramento on the coast of the Rio de la Plata opposite Buenos Aires could not have been more of a contrast.

Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay - Old Town

As the sun goes down in Colonia, so it does on  the journey.  A fitting end perhaps.

Sunset in Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay across the Rio de la Plata

Challenging Moments

The ride provided many opportunities for stretching my comfort zone. Beginning with the Dalton Highway, it was a tough start to the trip, followed a week later by the Top of the World highway.

The Dalton Highway, Alaska - The Famous "Ice Road" and our first dirt experience of the trip

Approaching the Bear’s Tooth Pass in Wyoming, road works crated an unexpected hazard.  This was true for many parts of the journey where paved roads were replaced with temporary dirt sections, in paces for miles.

If only all roads carried the warnings of Bears Tooth pass!

The Mokee Dugway in Utah kept me awake for two nights before we arrived based on its reputation as a difficult road.  The warning signs for 25 miles before also did nothing to dispell the fear of impending danger.  As it turned out, it was much shorter, and not as challenging as I had feared, or maybe I was just getting more adept at gravel roads and steep descents.

Warnings for Mokee Dugway

In Central America we had plenty of chances to overcome landslides and wash-outs.  These we expected, but did not know where we would come across them. The wet, slippery mud was unpredeictable as was the time it would take to get moving.

Landslides in Guatemala after overnight rain storm

The Banana Bridge between Costa Rica and Panama was a major obstacle, if not physically, but also mentally.   Sharing a rickety bridge with trains, trucks and pedestrians, none of which would get out of the way for a motorcycle, proved to be an interesting experience as the boards along the sides tended to move as we passed over and did not always meet at the ends or edges.  We were, it seems, the first group which rode across the bridge, without incident, out of the past 4 similar motorcycle expeditions.

Crossing the banana bridge - Costa Rica to Panama: Keep focused on the end and go!

I dropped my bike on three occasions.  In Guatemala as I was parking at a roadside food stall and my foot slid on mud, in Canyon del Pato trying to do a U-turn on a steep incline, and on the Carretera Austral as I hit a pile of deep gravel .  Thankfully all were either stopped or at very low speed.

Shiny side no longer facing upwards: Canyon del Pato, Peru

Ruta 40 in Argentina is infamous.  Earning the right to place this sticker on the windscreen is certainly a mark of the badge of honour! Hundreds of miles of gravel and dirt roads across Patagonia, with fierce, gusting horizontal winds and heavy vehicles make this one of the most challenging riding experiences that most of us will ever face.  Once again, in previous expeditions, some people have opted out of the Ruta 40 and taken the coastal road instead.  There are a lot of roadworks on Ruta 40 now which made it more of a challenge, buit in a few years time, much of it will be paved and the challenge will disappear.

Ruta 40 is known as one of the toughest roads for the gravel surface and high winds

While Ruta 40 faces challenges of gravel and high winds, the Carretera Austral can have steep inclines as well.  Add to this heavy machinery grading the surfaces and washging a wave of loose mud over your boots as you wait for them to pass, and you have the recipe for a very scary ride.

Carretera Austral, Chile: gravel, mud and steep inclines

People and Cultural Richness

The landscapes through which we passed were often breathtaking. The roads, twisting and winding through mountains and deserts were frequently so long that you had to stop and re-focus, but left you with a grin from ear to ear.  But the journey also included some of the most educational and cultural experiences that I have had in my life.

The Tlingit museum and lodge on our way from Yukon to British Colombia celebrated the First Nations heritage.  Although the totems here were for tourism, they represented a long and rich civilization.  Later we passed through a village and saw a row of totems for long departed ancestors.

Totem at Tlingit First Nations Heritage centre

Approaching Moab in Utah, we rode along the Colorado Canyon.  I was attracted by the dark “desert varnish” which coated the sandstone rocks lining the canyon, and stopping to take a closer look, found a slab with inscribed petroglyphs.  Later, talking to the park rangers, it appears that the slab I found had not been mapped on to their database.  Dating from before the 13th century, they marked a pre-European settle civilization, still very much in the stone age.

Petroglyphs from Colorado canyon - Utah

Mesa Verde in southern Utah is another site I had visited before, but to see the cliff dwellings is always a rich sight.  Dating from the 9th to 12th centuries it marks the stage in Anasazi development before they disappeared quite suddenly form the area.

Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings

The Mayan civilization, both in its heyday of the 5 – 9th centuries and today add great depth to the journey.  Pelenque in southern Mexico was a major site as was Copan.  We also met a current Shaman from Mayan ancestry in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, who blessed our journey in a Mayan ritual over an altar said to be more than a thousand years old.

Palenque - Mayan city

The Shaman Blessing - Mayan altar

More modern cultural experience were afforded through many churches and cathedrals we visited along the way, but also through art.  The Botero museums in Colombia, in Bogota and Medellin, celebrate the famous artist and his unique style of portraying the human form.

The curious art of Botero

Traditional crafts are still practiced in many central and South American countries.  Watching an old woman spinning Alpaca yarn in the Chivay town square while engaging in a chat with other local women added a rich dimension to our visit.

Spinning alpaca wool - Chivay

And of course the children.  Everywhere we went we found children happy to come up and talk with us, try to sell us sweets or fruit, or just want to climb on the bikes.

Mariana at the fuel stop

Kids in the chocolatier

What have I learned?

1/ about myself

To want to go for a ride on the bike is a hobby.  To look forward every day to strapping on the boots, in rain or shine, cold or hot, gravel or asphalt, is a passion.  There was not a day I did not look forward to riding, seeing new sights, meeting new people and discovering new customs even when I was faced with 200 miles of gravel.

I also appreciated that this was a privilege to have the chance to travel the length of the Americas.

2/ about the equipment

Bike – The BMW GS1200 Adventure is a truly remarkable machine. From high speed blasting across the paved road surface, to picking its way through deep mud, gravel, rocks and on steep inclines, it is probably the best bike for the job, especially when carrying a full load of luggage .

Preparation– there is no substitute for good preparation, be it maps, the bike equipment, clothes, and mental preparation.  In this way there were fewer circumstances when you had to meet unexpected challenges.

Clothes – I carried too many.  Daily washing routines made clothes easy to manage and I could have used less than half of what I actually took.  Merino wool is fantastic!  Multiple layers and good waterproofs meant that I was never too hot, never too cold and never wet on the inside (except in Costa Rica when I thought I could outrun the storm in Volcan Arenal!)

3/ About People

From Alaska to Ushuaia and all countries in between, people are in many ways similar and very different.  The availability of good education is crucial.  It is still the case in many countries in Central and South America that 5-6 children is the norm for poorer people to provide a cushion in old age for parents who have no pension or savings, while the more wealthy have 1-2 children.  This ensures a permanent poverty trap and encourages social unrest as the gap between rich and poor widens.  Perceived or actual corruption in the ruling structure further promotes unrest and the heavily politicized graffiti in many countries through which we passed bears testimony to dissatisfaction through the population.

But one cannot be but impressed at the hard working people of South Mexico and Guatemala where the countryside is worked in family sized patches of vegetables, a pig or two, few chickens and all the family working away.  Carrying large bundles to markets the men and women work side by side to sustain their livelihoods.  The patchwork of smallholdings covers the rich volcanic soil on mountain sides even on the most impossible slopes where mechanisation cannot be considered.

And spare a thought for the remote Estancias in Argentina when you next tuck into a steak or lamb, and the harsh life they lead to bring the food to the table.  Often hundreds of miles from even the nearest small town, the remoteness in a cold, semi-arid and windswept landscape must be tough.

It has been a life enriching experience. Thank you for coming with me.

Martin Hutchison

December 20th, 2011

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North to Buenos Aires – heading home

Ushuaia: Rest day at the bottom of the world

Sunday, December 4th:  Ushuaia is a busy little town at the bottom of the world and seems to exist because of itself.  As a popular stop-off point for cruise liners the hotels are full with tourists from many countries eager to add the “end of the world” to their list of places they have visited.

Ushuaia skyline

A walk along promenade also reveals a military purpose as many bronze busts of naval characters celebrate Ushuaia’s history.

Ushuaia Bay

But it is also a prominent container port.  Given its location, hundreds of miles from any other centre of consumption or population, it is not clear why there is such a large container handling facility.  Certainly we saw a number of trucks hauling containers along the gravel road to the Chile border, but given the larger town of Punta Arenas which is better connected to the road network, I don’t think the truck traffic accounts for the number of containers in the dock.

Containers, Cruise ships and Antarctica expeditions

As well as the larger cruise ships there are a number of smaller vessels which are used as adventure/expedition cruises to Antarctica side by side with the container ships.  A number of smaller vessels also handle day trips to the near islands in the bay to go to the penguin colonies and also spot dolphins and other sea life.

Ushuaia Bay

Being Sunday morning and a typical tourist town of souvenir gift shops, restaurants and bars, it is noticeably quiet.  The surrounding mountains, still snow capped in late spring, make an attractive backdrop to Ushuaia.


Ushuaia to Rio Grande: 130 Miles:  Retracing our steps and heading north

I have often observed that although travelling along the same road, it is often quite different in reverse.  I have seen this in Spain where in one direction one is looking at mountains, while in the other direction one is looking at the coast, and so my favourite rides are in fact two rides on the same road.  So it was leaving Ushuaia this morning and heading back along Ruta 3 to Rio Grande through which we briefly passed two days previously.  The road rises quite quickly through the mountains surrounding the town, but with quite good roads and little traffic there were no real challenges.

Road leaving Ushuaia

Yesterday and the day before when we arrived, we saw Ushuaia in probably at its best: warm, mostly sunny and dry.  Today it was cool, hovering around 10C, and started to rain as we left.  Passing through the mountain pass and heading towards the lower, tree clad hills of the central area of Tierra del Fuego we gained a much better view of the Lake Fagnano than we had seen on the way down to Ushuaia.

Lake Fagnano

The rain was enough to justify wearing the waterproofs, but never enough to wash away the dust which had accumulated on our clothes and bikes from the final drive to the End of the World two days before.  With just an occasional light drizzle the dust turned to a muddy veneer which later when the rain stopped, cemented itself to both surfaces….I need a laundry and a bike wash!!  The last 20 miles along the coast exposed us once again to fierce head and side winds which with passing trucks created a very unstable ride to our destination.

Arriving in Rio Grande and taking more notice than on our prior brief traverse, it is clear that this is town is based around a very large military installation with barracks, married quarters and enough military memorabilia as street furniture to indicate its prominence. But it is also clearly a tourist destination of sorts with apartments and attractive houses lining the sea front.  Though I suspect that there is rarely, if ever a time when one can swim in the sea between the cold water and the strong South Atlantic winds.  Nevertheless, a stroll along the well-constructed promenade was a refreshing way to finish the day.

Sea front prommenade - Rio Grande - Tierra del Fuego

Rio Grande – Rio Gallegos: 240 Miles: Argentina-Chile Argentina, dirty and windy

Today was not a long day in distance terms, but was one of the more tiring roads.  Continuing north from Rio Grande, retracing our path towards the Argentina-Chile border, the mountain of yesterday far behind us and now the low, rolling hills diminishing to a gently undulating plain of poor grass over a sandy soil, the road was mostly straight and followed the east coast of Tierra del Fuego.  The wind picked up as the morning wore on and made driving quite tiring.

Tierra del Fuego is divided between Chile and Argentina, so in order to get from the Argentinian territory of the island into the Argentinian mainland, one has to pass through Chile.  So a moderate day in terms of distance involved two border crossings:  Argentina-Chile-Argentina, with a complete set of documentation, official stamps, bike inspections for agricultural produce in Chile etc.  Each crossing took about an hour thus taking time out of the day.

In addition to the border crossings, we also had the same 75 miles of gravel roads between the border and Cerro Sombrero where we had stayed on the way down.  Or it was intended to be the same, but as most dirt roads look very much alike, what was a very clear and well signposted dirt road heading south, was less so heading in the opposite direction and so we made the return drive along a different dirt road which came out about 10 kms north of Cerro Sombrero instead of south.  This would not have been an issue, and in fact may have been to our benefit had it not been for two things: firstly the track which was generally good for all but the last 10 miles, suddenly turned to deep unconsolidated mud and then deep gravel and a temporary detour due to upgrading road works.  One of our riders fell here, but was not injured.  The second was that fuel in this part of the world is quite scarce and with the energy sapping high winds, we planned to stop in Cerro Sombrero to re-fuel, so therefore had to turn back on ourselves.  As it happened the Cerro Sombrero fuel station was closed, thus reducing our tank range even further.  But the alternate road was richer in wildlife and we saw rheas, Llamas, Guanacos, condors as well as the ubiquitous sheep.

Apart from two border crossing and 75 miles of dirt roads, we also had the ferry crossing between Tierra del Fuego and the mainland. Once again the fun of driving the bike down the ramp and on to the ferry which was slowly moving while trying to retain its position with bow thrusters. This foto was taken of me on the way over – thanks David K for sharing it!

Entering the Tierra del Fuego Ferry

The remaining Ruta 3 to Rio Gallegos was a constant battle with the gusting wind constantly pulling us to the side of the road.

Rio Gallegos to Comodorro Rivadavia: 490 Miles: A long day by the coast

Today was a day to move us north by a substantial distance, nearly 500 miles.  Heading inland from Rio Gallegos and its estuary to the Atlantic we then turned north along Ruta 3 all the way to Comodorro Ribadavia.  This area is known as the Pampas and continues the same landscape as yesterday:  flat lying grassy plain, never more than 100-200 metres above sea level with occasionally gently undulating hills culminating in a low ridge, then dropping back into the same landscape from horizon to horizon.  Occasional small herds of Guanaco and Vicuna stood along the side of the road, a suicidal Rhea or two, rabbits chancing the crossing, but apart from that just 500 miles of flat, straight roads all the way.  I was told an Argentinian joke…What is the definition of nothing?  answer – the Pampa!

Our concerns about high winds were unfounded when we had a brisk breeze all the way, but nothing like high force gusts of the past few days.  With a starting temperature of 8C and ending in the mid 20’s and sunshine all day, it was a great day’s ride at 10 hours.

Comodoro Ribadavia – Puerto Madryn: 280 Miles: More of the same

My sleep was disturbed by the 2:30 AM “boy racers” who decided to hold a drag race outside our hotel with 20 year-old small capacity cars, but with all silencers removed from the exhaust system.  Add to this their in-car stereo systems at full power with over-driven base and it was clear that I was not going to make an early start today.

As it was not a long ride and the wind had still not risen to the level we experienced a few days before, I set off into a carbon copy landscape of yesterday immediately rising over a low sandstone ridge and back onto the flat, featureless plain of the pampas.  Today’s challenge was to be fuel and with a fairly stiff headwind for most of the day the fuel consumption was significantly impaired.

The queue for fuel

The recommended fuel stop was lined on both sides with cars waiting up to an hour to fill up.  We were told that we had been lucky to find fuel where we stayed last night since as this was a 4 day weekend and beginning of the school holidays for some, the demand for fuel was much greater.  Deciding that I did not absolutely NEED fuel I carried on and found another fuel station just 35 miles further north which was not only devoid of any cars waiting in line, but also had a choice of fuel grades and excellent coffee…. I assume that the existence of a line at the prior fuel stop created a panic buying sentiment and hence people “topping off” for fear of running out.

We had driven through oil and gas producing areas all day and just 30 miles short of our destination at Puerto Madryn we passed through an oil town.  Stopping once again for fuel the statue in the roundabout was impossible to resist….. two oil men?

Two Oil Men

For most of the drive north from Tierra del Fuego I had seen oil and gas wells producing into tank batteries or low pressure gas lines to treatment and compression stations.  There was also a sign a couple of days ago on the exit from Rio Grande that a methanol plant was planned to be constructed.  The construction dock was already in place.  Judging by the size of the well heads the production volume is modest, and I am guessing each well is measured in hundreds of barrels a day at most.

Arriving at Puerto Mardyn this is clearly a larger city than I had expected.  Established by Welsh settlers in the 1860’s it is now a city of 80,000 inhabitants.  Although it is a tourist town, the largest employer is the aluminium smelting plant, employing 6,000 and then a stone-works processing granite for domestic and export market.  But we were here to visit the Valdes Peninsula and see the wildlife.

Puerto Mardyn: Welsh Whales?

A day off in Puerto Madryn is for seeing whales.  Although it is late inthe season, whales are still to be seen in the two gulfs (san Jose and Nueva) which straddle the isthmus connecting the Valdes Peninsula to the mainland.  Whales come to give birth here in June, raising their young till about 4 months old, then head north to Brazil before heading south again to the Antarctic.  The babies stay with the mother for up to 3 years, learning the ocean routes from them. The primary whale is the Southern Right Whale, weighing up to 50 tons when fully grown, and at around 17 metres in length are pretty impressive.  The young are up to 2 metres in length at birth and can weigh more than a ton.

Using a minivan transfer from the hotel we boarded the inflatable boat in Puerto Pyramides.

Boarding the whale watching boat on the launch trailer

We found the last whales, a mother and calf, about 6 miles or so from the port.  Seemingly this pair was late to migrate because the calf was born late in the season and not yet large enough to survive the long journey.  The males had all left in October.

Southern Right Whale - Valdes Peninsula

Protected in Argentinian waters since the 1960’s, conservationists have identified more than 2,700 individual whales in the Valdes Peninsula by the unique markings each one has of barnacle growths on their skin.  I just wish we had been able to see the larger numbers of whales!

Southern Right whale - Valdes Peninsula

The mother whale seemed quite relaxed with the tour boat just a few tens of metres away and she rolled on to her back with pectoral fins in the air, floating serenely as we watched.

Southern Right Whale floating on her back

Puerto Madryn – Viedma 310 Miles:  Summer is here again

It was warmer this morning when we left Puerto Madryn, at least 15C, and with lighter winds and sunshine, became a very pleasant ride as I headed north.  I was riding alone today as are many of the riders and I suspect as we are nearing the end of the trip we are each savouring the ride in our own ways and while the scenery of the pampas of Patagonia is not very inspiring,  enjoying some personal moments of reflection on all the places we have been, people we have met and diverse climates from the north to the south.

The pampas, as I have remarked before, is essentially a flat plain, just above sea level, and for the last 1,000 miles I have seen perhaps only 5 trees which appeared to be self sown, with others planted around farmhouses or in the villages through which we have passed. The coarse, dry grass and rough bushes about knee high have populated the landscape for 4 or 5 days.  Apart from a few horses, cattle, occasional vicuna or rhea, there is little wild life.

The Pampa near Valdes Peninsula

Stopping for the first fuel stop and finding some excellent coffee it had warmed up enough to shed the riding jacket and don the florescent sleeveless vest I wear over my armour.  I have not worn this for probably 2 months since we left Central America…

Turning east towards Viedma, today’s destination, the landscape suddenly changes.  The scrubby pampas has been cleared and large farms with ploughed fields take their place.  Irrigation from the Rio Negro turns the dry and mostly barren landscape into productive farms, and just as we have seen in many areas, just a little water goes a long way in farming terms.   There are suddenly trees too.  After more than 1,000 miles of no trees at all, there are now trees almost everywhere.

Viedma is a town of perhaps 50,000 people on the Rio Negro.  It is twinned with Carmen de Patagones on the other side of the river, though there are few bridges.  Francisco Viedma built a fort here in the 18th century to protect and open up the lands to the south, but a major flood washed much of the settlement away, so the opposite bank was populated as it was higher, and hence the two towns.  Carmen de Patagones retains its old charms of cobbled streets and old buildings while the new town of Viedma has wider streets and square blocks.

With temperatures in the low 30’s, a 4 day weekend at the start of the summer holidays and Christmas just around the corner there was a definite buzz to the place today.  People swimming in the river, walking along the bank and no shortage of teenagers cruising along the road with noisy motor scooters.

from Viedma to Carmen de Patagones across Rio Negro

Viedma to Sierra de la Ventana – 280 Miles: Mountains at last?

Viedma was a buzzing little town on the banks of the Rio Negro and within a short (30 kms) drive to the coast.  Last night, as we are approaching the end of the trip I went out for a drink with my roommate, Drew, and as is often the case the bars only start to liven up at after 1 PM.  I was in bed by 1:15 with a long-ish day’s ride ahead.


Heading north on the Pampa again, the scenery barely changes as we encounter the same flat, rough grassy plains as before.  After about 200 miles of almost mind-numbingly boring landscape, the hint of mountains appears out of the hazy horizon – The Sierra de la Ventana or Window Mountain in the national park of the same name.  A brief stop in Tornquist, the nearest town, for a cash machine and then on to the resort hotel, el Mirador, for the night.


Sierra de la Ventana is so named for a hole in the mountain created I suppose, by wind action against the sedimentary rocks, exploiting a weakness.

Window mountain - can yoju see it?


Today was not an inspiring drive but it was nevertheless easy and essentially traffic free.

Sierra de la Ventana – Buenos Aires – 370 miles: Heading to the Big Apple (“BA”)

The Mirador resort was a pleasant, quiet hotel, though the rooms were small.  The restauarnt was good and as the final night before arrival in BA was almopst like a “last supper” experience.

Early morning at the Mirador resort, Sierra de la Ventana

Today is a fairly long day at 370 miles, but the first 100 miles was through low mountains with winding roads and little traffic in the early morning cool temperatures.  Riding along and continuing the reflective mood of the past few days, I was thinking through the highlights of the trip in terms of scenery, riding experience or people I have met who have made an impression on me.  We were to regroup at mile 280 so that we could ride the last 70-80 miles of motorway as a group.  This not only creates quite a spectacle, but also creates a formidable line of large motorcycles to intimidate local drivers into letting us weave in and out of the traffic and arrive at our destination together.  Which is what we did to the Scala hotel in Avenida 9 de Julio, supposedly the widest road in the world!


Arrival in Buenos Aires

An obligatory photo, beer in hand, to mark the accomplishment of 23,000 miles of riding the Americas, and it was off to a well deserved shower and later the group meeting to learn the arrangements for the shipping of bikes home.

Traditional celebration of 23,000 miles of the Pan American


The end of the journey is a bitter sweet experience.  After nearly 5 months I am ready for some rest, but at the same time I am not yet tired of discovering new parts the world or meeting new people.  My experience on this trip has been very positive.  A Saturday drive with the bike club will still be enjoyable but does not come close to the experience of the past few months.

My last post as I enjoy a few days of rest in Buenos Aires will be somewhat reflective.  To all who have followed by journey through the blog, thank you for sharing it with me.  If you would like to send me any questions or comments, please feel free at MD@IRConsult.Co.UK or and I will try to cover them in the last post of this blog.


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Ushuaia – The Destination or just the reason for the journey?


El Calafate – Torres del Paine, Chile:  200 Miles: Cold, cold wind….That’s Patagonia


Since we have been in Patagonia it has lived up to its reputation as being one of the windiest places on Earth.  On a motorcycle it saps your strength as you fight to keep as straight a line as possible, especially through a thin, dirt track surrounded by gravel ridges.  This morning the wind had abated somewhat, and since I prefer to leave early and take a more relaxed pace, there was no doubt I would be on the road as soon as possible even though the measured distance was only 150 miles.


The recommended route notes indicated that we had 60 miles or so of gravel roads to cut a corner in the route.  But referring to the map, indicated that by taking a slightly (about 40 miles) longer route we could avoid at least 50 miles of this, and thus only deal with an obligatory dirt road close to the border.  So setting off at 8:30, an hour ahead of the rest, we initially headed east, rising out of the valley floor at just 250 metres above sea level up to 800 metres on the adjacent rolling hills of glacial moraine.  The sun was shining, there was no traffic and all was well with the world.  Cresting the hills and turning south across a higher plateau with no shelter, the wind picked up and became the same gale force buffeting blast from yesterday and every other day we have driven in Patagonia.  The temperature dropped to around 5C (40F) and with wind-chill began to penetrate the very core of the body.  The landscape was not very inspiring, mostly flat but with the snow-capped mountains on the western horizon, rising abruptly above the plateau, clearly visible even though they were still 100 miles away.


We continued for the first 100 miles, stopping at la Esperanza for coffee and a fuel top-up cognizant of the paucity of fuel availability in this part of the world.  And to accompany the coffee, an Argentinian specialty, alfajorles.  These are a sweet sandwich type of sweet with a burnt sugar/caramel filling between two sides of flaky pastry.  They are originally Arabic, and also known, but less popular in Spain.


Setting off now to the west to catch up with the rest of the group, the wind was now a full headwind of perhaps 40-50mph, making forward motion at any speed a chore.  Any slight deviation from the road direction meant that the wind kept changing the impact on the bike inducing a weaving motion.  When the wind is blowing full strength on one side it has the impact of driving a wedge between the jacket and the helmet and forcing the helmet to rise under air pressure, creating a mild choking sensation with the chin strap.  After 50 miles of this my head and neck were aching from the constant strain.


We caught up with the rest of the group at the official fuel stop on the route and then headed towards the Chilean border once again. Immigration and bike import/export documentation taken care of on the Argentinian side we then did he same in reverse on the Chilean side.  As we have seen in many borders the immigration /customs posts are separated by several miles… I wonder who owns the no-man’s land in the middle.


The hotel for 2 nights is once again, in the middle of nowhere… phone, no internet, and much to the chagrin of some, no nightclubs and dancing girls!  But it is closer to the entrance to the Torres del Paine national park where we plan to go tomorrow.  Dinner choices were…limited…..again….am starting to feel I am being held hostage to some of these “remote, idyllic, locations” which feel free to charge whatever they like as one has no choice.  grumble, grumble, moan, moan!!

Torres Del Paine: National Park: 150 Miles – voluntary dirt road riding?

The Torres del Paine mountains are really quite famous, and I have known at least of their existence for many years.  To get there one has to take a 75 mile circular route through the national park….and another 30-40 miles access at each end…..and all on gravel roads…. and all in the Patagonian gale force winds.


Entering Torres del Paine on the gravel road


Torres del Paine National Park

So given my obvious pleasure of riding on gravel roads (!!!!) it is a surprise to many that I am actually voluntarily engaging in a 100+ mile drive away from paved roads.  Apart from the intense, cold wind, the “road” is no more challenging than other “roads” we have driven of late, and in fact, is not technically difficult.  The surface is quite corrugated in places which makes forward progress very uncomfortable while you increase speed until the bumpy road is balanced by the clever suspension harmonics and you are bouncing along the tops of the bumps instead of feeling the whole dip.


The mountains are indeed spectacular, with glacial lakes, glaciers and waterfalls.


Torres del Paine


Torres del Paine


Salto Grande - Waterfall between two lakes


Lago Grey

To finish the day we detoured down to Puerto Natales to look for fuel.  As we have found regularly, fuel is scarce when you are away from big cities, and there are no big cities for hundreds of miles. Puerto Natales is a sea port connected to the Chilean fjord system.  It is a tourist town as well as a working port.  There are restaurants, banks, bars, shops and a nice new hotel overlooking the seashore……so why are we staying in the middle of nowhere just 20 miles way to the north?  Obviously a mental note to provide feedback on location of hotels!!  Tonight a spit roast lamb for all in the hotel…very good, but more red meat just before sleeping is not the healthiest of choices.

Torres del Paine – Cerro Sombrero: 240 Miles: Entering the Land of Fire

Today is the day that we cross into Tierra del Fuego, the “Land of Fire” by crossing the Straits of Magellan.  At only 240 miles and with no border crossing, there was no need to leave very early, but as we have found that the wind picks up during the course of the day, we set off around 8:30.  The Torres del Paine mountains to the right, we once again headed towards Puerto Natales and then south towards Punta Arenas.  By 9:30 the wind had already picked up and the next 100 miles became a battle with the side wind again.  But the road was good, the sun was shining and the traffic was light.  We expected the wind effect to reduce considerably when we turned east towards the ferry terminal for Tierra del Fuego, but the impact was negligible.


The lighthouse next to the Tierra del Fuego Ferry


The roll-on/roll-off ferry runs a continuous service between the mainland and the island of Tierra del Fuego.  As it approaches each side of the channel it holds itself in position using bow-thrusters against the fast running current without tying up.  This means that driving on to the ferry involves going from a wet concrete jetty to a wet steel ramp which is constantly moving sideways.


Tierra del Fuego Ferry


The final 20 miles or so to the hotel at Cerro Sombrero (“Hat Hill”), a small hamlet based around an oil field service facility, was again a battle between biker and the wind.  The hotel situated on the outskirts of this village was clean and functional, but was also the only place in town to eat….with a pre-ordered menu of red meat late in the evening….hmmm, my arteries are starting to get clogged!

Cerro Sombrero – Kaiken: 190 Miles: Getting to know Tierra del Fuego

We knew that the first 75 miles of today’s ride would be on gravel roads.  As Cerro Sombrero is the last town on the road to the Argentina border the Chileans probably thought it not worth laying down a paved surface as it was just going to facilitate people leaving! In bright sunshine, but cool, 12C, we set off early to take advantage of the lower morning wind speeds.  Heading south across Tierra del Fuego and for most of the day near or parallel to the east coast, the road was fairly well compacted dirt and gravel, but with enough depth of gravel at times to keep your concentration at a high level.  The “road” was generally flat-to-gently undulating across a grassy plain with what appeared to be low, sandstone hills on the horizon. One of the challenges today was the presence of large trucks coming from the border along the dirt road raising billowing clouds of fine dust as they passed.  For a few seconds the visibility reduced to just a few metres and with gravel ridges lining the hard-packed track I was following, ample opportunity to lose direction.


After the border we headed along the coast and passed through Rio Grande.  We will stop here on the way back and it looked like a nice little town.  On the side of the road was a memorial to the Belgrano battle ship sunk during the Falklands war in 1982.


Belgrano memorial - Rio Grande

I had seen a couple of small drilling rigs yesterday on our way south. Today there were more and a few small pump-jacks reminiscent of Oklahoma and Texas with adjacent tank batteries.  Yellow plastic low pressure gas flowlines took the gas into treatment and compressor stations and the yellow markers for buried pipelines were visible cutting across the fields.


Pump jack and tank for oil production

This was not my mental impression of Tierra del Fuego.  A grassy plain with cattle, sheep and Vicuna spread out across vast estancias, no trees and only low hills dos not conjure up the image of early European explorers looking at the fires of the original inhabitants and naming it “land of fire”.  But perhaps the island was once covered in trees, but long since cut down for firewood and the creation of the large farms.  As we headed south we began to see some evidence of woodland, although the trees such as they were, were stunted and with the kind of tortured trunks that indicates a tough climate.  I was also not expecting to see oil exploration here, but then, nor did I research it ahead of time. It seems fitting that we should start in the oil province of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska and end in the oil provide of Tierra del Fuego.

With more than 200 miles driven across the island the plain turned to more gently rolling hills and the small patches of woodland into more coherent forest.  On the horizon slowly arose snow-capped mountain peaks.  With about 70 miles to go to reach Ushuaia, perhaps I will get to see my mental map of Tierra del Fuego fulfilled after all.


Our hotel for the night is a cabin resort overlooking a lake, surrounded by mountains in the distance and hills in the foreground.  A stunning location, but once again remote with no choices as to where, when or what to eat…. vast quantities of red meat in the evening with no choice!  Of course, many in the group are quite happy with this arrangement!

Lake Fagnano from Kaiken resort

Kaiken – Ushuaia: 65 (93) miles:  Destinantion or just the justification for the journey?

Today was a short ride, and one taken as a group as far as Ushuaia so that we could look very cool on arrival and also gather for the group photo at the entrance!


Arrival at Ushuaia


The sun shone through a milky sky, the road was mostly good and traffic was light as we headed to our final destination in the early morning cool of around 10C.     The only reason to come to Ushuaia is to visit the most southerly town in the world (although if you take a ferry you can visit an even more southerly town of 36 inhabitants for the purists).  And so the town, which is bigger than I expected, and very much a tourist location and cruise ship stop-off, justifies itself.

Following through the outskirts of the town towards the National Park we go from paved surface to the 8 miles of dusty gravel road that marks the end of Ruta 3 in Argentina, and the official End of the World sign.


"You are here" - at the end of the world!

Having parked the bikes there followed a period of hand shaking, congratulating, a few moist eyes and a little sparkling wine served in plastic cups to mark the occasion.  But reflecting back on the sombre mood at breakfast this morning, there was also a tinge of sadness that the justification for the journey had now been reached, and so, notwithstanding another 2,000 miles to Buenos Aires, the journey is essentially over and 18 months of planning, 18 weeks of riding and 20,000 miles are now just memories rather than expectations.


Of course there was a long and not always patient line of people waiting on the chance to have their photo taken with the sign, with the bike, with other people, or in groups.  As my room-mate, Drew had started together, it seemed only fitting to end together too.


Drew and I: At the end of the world



Liz, David and I



Monica and I

Behind the sign is a boardwalk to the edge of the Bay of La Pataia, and the “End of the World”.

Bahia La Pataia - looking out to sea from the end of the world


With all photos taken, all felicitations exchanged the journey back north began with the 8 miles of dusty road.  While the ride to the park was relatively rapid even on the loose surface, the ride out was a little more sedate, not only because we are now on the way home, but also because a tour bus in front was sending plumes of choking and blinding dust into the air preventing any chance of passing on the twisting, narrow gravel road.


Our hotel in Ushuaia is modern and overlooking the harbour….at last a place with some life and bars, restaurants etc after one too many “quaint remote places”.




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The Final Frontier – Part 2: Patagonia: Carretera Austral and Ruta 40

Bariloche – Futuleufu: 220 Miles: Riding our own ride

Having now made the decision that if a perfectly good paved road will get us to our destination regardless of how much “fun” an alternative, unpaved road might offer, we studied the map last night and found that we could reach tonight’s stopover by using the famous Ruta 40 for most of the way.  The alternative additional 80 miles of gravel and sand, while appealing to those who enjoy that kind of surface, just did not compete for our attention today.

The mountain and lake setting of Bariloche is idyllic and it was a pity that not only did we arrive off season but the enjoyment was further marred by the strong winds and volcanic ash which found its way into everything.  Setting out this morning the road South took us through deep valleys with volcanic peaks lining the heavily wooded flanks and glacial lakes filling the valley floors.  This could be Switzerland, and easily accounts for why the early settlers came from southern Germany and called this their new home.

Leaving Bariloche

Connecting back to the Ruta 40 was 80 miles of delightful twists and turns through mountain-lined valleys on good asphalt roads with only light traffic which was easily passed.  Stopping in El Bolson for fuel we also spotted a sign for “churros”.  These typical Spanish snacks are basically thicj strands of deep fried dough and are traditionally dipped into melted chocolate.  An Argentinian variation is the “submarine” which is hot milk with lumps of chocolate left to melt and frequently stirred to create a milk chocolate drink.

Refreshed and back on the road we left the mountains and headed to the higher elevations, around 1,000 metres, the equivalent of altiplano, and began to deal with the Patagonian wind…again. Although not really cold at 13C, the wind chill from the snow-covered mountains lining the high valley, laden with dampness from the rough vegetation and yesterday’s rain, created a blast that seemed to go right through even the warmest clothes.  I put on my final layer and picked up the pace to get us through this section.

The final section of the day involved a border crossing, and also our only off-road section of the day…it is not of course properly off-road, but just not paved.  Turning off Ruta 40 at Esquel towards the old Welsh settlement of Trevelin, the roads once again start to wind through valleys towards the snow-capped mountains and more than once I caught a glimpse of what looked like volcanic peaks with smoke and ash being emitted into the low grey overcast skies.

Esquel and the smaller town of Trevelin are primarily tourist locations for outdoor pursuits, but also for the agriculture that the harsh climates permits.  From Trevelin towards the border the road turns to quite good hard-packed dirt with stone chippings to fill the ruts.

Gravel road to Chilean Border

On this surface we can average 30-35 mph, although some of our more eager riders managed 60+mph.

Road from Trevelin to Chile Border

The scenery was in fact getting more attractive with the Rio Grande cutting a deep valley through the mountains.

The border post was understandably “rustic” in this remote location, and we were told ahead of time that the most important feature was the cat which seemed to rule the place, sitting anywhere it chose to sit regardless of the functioning of the office.

The Border Cat!

Border formalities dispensed with to our surprise the Chilean side of the mountain pass was paved with good tarmac for the last 6 miles to the Hosteria Rio Grande in the small, sleepy town of Futuleufu.  The hotel was, shall we say, “rustic”, though they did prepare a spit roast lamb and some good Chilean grilled Salmon too.

fresh lamb on the parilla

It rained all night….

Futuleufu to Puyuhuapi: 120 Miles:  The Carretera Austral– A damp introduction

Yesterday’s dirt road was acceptable as dirt roads go…hard packed, obvious gravel and with only minor inclines, curves and with reasonable visibility.  On the wrong side of a short and meaningless relationship with a particularly pleasant bottle of Concha y Toro Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon, I managed to make my “brief siesta” last through last night’s route briefing, so really had little idea what to expect today that was not detailed on the route notes.  With no mention of dirt roads I was hoping for some paved surfaces through the Carretera Austral.  We understood that the most challenging roads were the Dalton in Alaska, and then the Carretera Austral and Ruta 40 in Patagonia… we were about to find out why.

The rain persisted from overnight and since the day of 120 miles was very short, I postponed the inevitable departure until around 9:15 hoping beyond reason that the rain would stop.  Packing the bike in the rain and setting off, the paved road turned to dirt within a few hundred metres of the village.  The surface was mostly good, like yesterday, but the overnight heavy rain had turned the hard packed dirt into a less predictable surface, with a slippery veneer of mud. But with the experience of yesterday and increasing confidence in the bike and competence in myself, we maintained a steady 35-40mph through the twists and turns, ascents and descents of the Carretera Austral.  This “road” was built during the Pinochet era initially as a military road, but also to link the remote Chilean farming communities of the south of the country.

Carretera Austral

Making quite good progress, with occasional slower sections where the mud became thicker, or sand filled the ruts, we slipped along for the first 30 miles feeling reasonably comfortable, even accelerating on some gravelly downhill sections where previously I would have been braking!.

Carretera Austral

The rain was intermittent but occasionally heavy and the low cloud obscured the adjacent mountains, though occasionally offering glimpses of snow covered peaks.

The temperature hovered around 14-15C (58-60F) but on exposed corners where the wind managed to whip into a local frenzy, the cold gusts caught us by surprise.

Carretera Austral - Pinochet's legacy

And then things changed.  Crossing a bridge and turning a corner we encountered the dirt rider’s nightmare….the grader  (motoniveladora en Español).   A hard packed surface is quite good, even with a thin mud veneer, but when a grader passes over the top, pushing a bow-wave of loose mud scrapings over most of the road, the impact is immediate and dangerous as there is no grip and with a steep, loose ridge created by the blade of the grader, no way of crossing to the smooth surface which has just been created.  This continued for about 4 miles and re-occurred twice more along the road.

My assessment of most gravel roads that we have taken is that the promised “spectacular” views are rarely fulfilled.  This is partly because I am so concentrated on the road that I cannot look at the scenery, or as per today, the low cloud and rain obscure any view that might be attractive.  But just occasionally you catch a glimpse of something appealing and can even find a place to stop in the gravel road to take the photo.

Carretera Austral

Arriving at Puyuhuapi, a small tourist town on a fjord inlet from the Pacific Ocean, we are staying in Casa Ludwig, a 4th generation Germanic family home now used as a guest house.  Options for dinner were limited, but this close to the sea, fish was a good option.

Puyuhuapi – Coihaique: 145 Miles: Lupins, Horsetails and the toughest road yet

I was awake for last night’s briefing.  Having survived my first 120 miles of the Carretera Austral dirt road yesterday, I was not overly concerned about today’s comparatively short 35 miles of additional dirt before reaching some new black-top paved surface.  But the briefing served to stifle any complacency that may have started to set in.  The co-leader had travelled this road just a few months ago, in summer I might add, and described the road as a “technically challenging”.  To describe a road as “technical” means that the rider is expected to stand on the foot pegs, throw his/her body in any direction required to re-balance the weight in order to counter-act the effects of steep inclines, steep descents, deep, rutted surfaces, rocks, pot-holes, mud, etc.. etc…

It has now been raining for 36 hours without a stop.  It rained all night and the thought of the technically challenging road in addition to the rain gave rise to at least a little foreboding.  Setting off at 09:15 the road turned to dirt in less than 50 metres on leaving the village. But the route around the fjord was mostly flat to begin with and the gravel no worse than yesterday.  Settling into a 3rd and 4th gear groove at 40-45 mph, weaving around the pot holes and negotiating the gravel ridges between the ruts at a reasonable speed I was happy to see a few miles click away before encountering anything difficult.  The “road” was cut into the foot of the cliff face, and so occasionally suffered from rock falls which reduced the road width to a single track with rocks and loose chips roughly graded into a semi-coherent surface.  The road was deceptive – 100 metres or so of good hard surface followed by 50 metres of deep pot-holes preventing any real speed being built up or indeed confidence.  Occasional section of deep sand had been graded into the surface, but the constant rain had made this hard enough not to grab the front wheel and throw out the balance.

And then the world changed.  Moving away from the fjord coastline we began to rise up through a series of tight hair-pin bends, gravel covered with rocks protruding through just out of sight of the approach track so guaranteed to catch you out just when you have chosen a preferred line through the blind bend.  Several people dropped their bikes on this section which lasted almost 8 miles through narrow tracks between the cliff face and a deep drop obscured by dense green foliage.  Recently graded deep, wet mud added to the “fun”, especially when encountered just before a tight bend adding some rear-wheel weaving to the approach and just a few missed heart beats!  At mile 28.5 the road flattened out and then began to descend in a similar manner, so the controlled up-hill section changed to a gravelly downhill, twisty section with equal challenges of hairpin bends with uneven rocks.

Reaching the tarmac after 35 miles we took a well-deserved break, in the continuing driving rain, with the thought of dismounting and kissing the tarmac inpapl style crossed many riders’ minds!  The remaining miles were covered fairly quickly though the continuing driving rain and gale force winds made driving fairly hairy at times. The scenery, now that we could at least relax for a few seconds to look at it, was mountainous occasionally breaking out into a broad valley with sheep and isolated cattle farms.  The green, lush landscape with broad leafed ferns, dense trees and thick grass certainly indicates that the rain we have experienced must be a prevalent feature of this area.

Two plants caught my eye:  We had noticed along the side of the road an increasing number of wild Lupins.  Now as we entered the narrow valley floor between the adjacent mountains, great swathes of Lupins now bathed the landscape in a purple hue.

Lupins everywhere

The second plant to catch my eye was the Horsetail fern.  This is one of the plants which you learn about in Palaeontology as being one of the oldest plants on Earth and present in the fossil record.  As we continued our long, wet ride to Coihaique, we also passed through some exposed coal measures in some of the road cuttings.  Horsetail ferns would certainly have contributed in the past to the formation of these coal beds, although in the carboniferous period when the coal was being formed in swamps, the ferns would have been tens of metres high.

Horsetail ferns

The cabins where we are staying are located next to a raging torrent, the Rio Simpson.  It is still raining…..and we were pleased to have arrived safely even if our motocross boots were filled with water.  I understand that the dirt road this morning was the hardest that we are likely to encounter in terms of intense technical riding.  Many bikes were dropped, especially on the tight, gravelly corners, but at low speed, damage to bike and rider was negligible.  I was happy to have not been one of the dropped bikes, and although I did not enjoy the dirt riding, I did have a certain sense of accomplishment at having completed a tough day with the shiny side up.  Or more precisely, the very muddy side up!

Coihaique to Puerto Guadal: 170 Miles:  Carretera Austral

It rained all night….now 72 hours of constant rain.  The whole countryside is under water and the rough track from the cabins to the main road is a morass of brown slime.  The narrow suspension bridge linking the cabins to the main road is also a challenge as the wooden slats are slippery too.  Donning all the layers for warmth and rain that I brought with me, we set off south, skirting the edge of Coihaique, such that I never did see the town, apparently the second largest on the Carretera Austral.  I enjoy a rustic location from time to time, but to have an option to walk around and know a new location would have been preferable.

Leaving in gentle rain we started on the first 60 miles or so which as tarmac until Cerro Castillo.  Gently rising from a few hundred metres to almost a thousand, the road was good quality and with enough twists and turns to make it an enjoyable ride, especially as the rain began to die out and a weak sun tried to poke fingers of light through the clouds creating a rainbow.  As we approached 1,000 metres the snow-capped mountains which had accompanied us on both sides now narrowed to a valley head.  The snow line was a hundred metres or so below the level of the road, but for the most part the road itself was clear of snow, with only some slushy patches in the areas where the road remained in shade.

Carretera Austral

There was no real hurry as not only was the day relatively short at 170 miles, but also because after yesterday, no-one was really eager to get back on the kind of dirt roads we had yesterday.  But the inevitable cannot be postponed for ever, and after a little more than an hour of riding twisty mountain roads we arrived at the end of the hard top surface.

The first part of the dirt road was probably the toughest, and in many respects like that of yesterday.

River cutting through Carretera Austral

Narrow, winding, steep, gravelly with rocks poking through the surface on tight corners, and a speed-sapping corrugated surface that made it hard for the rear wheel to get traction.  I should mention here perhaps that this was partly my fault.  The BMW R1200 GS Adventure is not only a very robust bike, but also quite sophisticated.  The suspension can be adjusted with the press of a button giving you much more travel on rough surfaces…. I remembered that.  But also the ABS and Traction Control can equally be adjusted for off-road use by the touch of a button.  If the traction control is left “ON” then every time the rear where starts to spin on a loose surface, so the power is reduced to the wheel.  I am only just now beginning to feel more at ease with the rear wheel spinning and a strange sense of floating across rough surfaces not unlike the feeling of water skiing and jumping across the bow wave and wake for the first time.

After 10 or so miles of very rough surface the road levelled out, just like yesterday, and we were happily slipping along the gravel at 40-50 MPH.  I can never admit to enjoying the off road experience, but settling into a 3rd and 4th gear pace, standing on the foot pegs and letting my body balance the bike into the bends at least gives one the satisfaction of knowing that the effort  put into the off-road skills course was not wasted.

Road to Puerto Guadal

And so it continue for most of the day except for two stretches where the grader had been at work again and left a 2 foot high ridge of loose mud in the centre of the road which you had to cross to make progress.   Finally arriving at Lake Buenos Aires, no relevance to the city of the same name, the spectacular views of the mountains lining the lake made the journey almost worthwhile!

Carretera Austral to Puerto Guadal

Tomorrow more dirt and a long day…..

Lake Buenos Aires

The road - Deep ruts and gravel ridges to the horizon

Puerto Guadal – Estancia La Angostura: 310 Miles –Carretera Austral and Ruta 40

It was a long day.  Although 300 miles is not huge, the inclusion of an estimated 180 miles of dirt, and a border crossing made for a significant distance.  Starting immediately on dirt roads, the circumnavigation of Lago Buenos Aires continued.  This is a huge lake and after 100 miles we were still running alongside.  It was not supposed to be a tough ride but when one is dealing with dirt roads they can change not just between seasons but between days depending on the weather and the road works to maintain the surface.  Today was difficult, and for me perhaps the most difficult we have dealt with so far. The “road” runs alongside the lake and in parts is cut into the overhanging rock face, and single track.  With steep inclines and descents, covered in loose rock chippings which accumulate in the dips and tight, twisting corners it was a challenge as great as we had seen so far.  Add to this recently graded loose sand and mud, and the recipe for adventure increases by the mile, exacerbated by the need to maintain a reasonable speed to reach our destination before dark.  The views were indeed stunning.

Puerto Guadal along Lake Buenos Aires

Having felt pleased with myself that I had survived yesterday’s ride with both bike and pride intact, today it was only 6 miles before I was horizontal across the road.  Following a tight, gravel covered uphill corner, I briefly glanced in my mirror to check if my riding partner had made it around, and losing concentration for a split second found myself in deep gravel on the side of the road.  Instinctively I gave it a pulse of throttle, and recovered enough to get back on the road, but then with insufficient forward momentum, laid the bike on its side across the gravel track.  Thankfully, at a slow pace there was no damage to me or bike, and the following bikers helped to put it upright again, ready to move on.

Carretera Austral views

Carretera Austral Views


The technically challenging surface continued for 65 miles until we reached Chile Chico where coffee and regrouping occurred.

The border with Argentina was a few miles later and with experience of previous Chile-Argentina crossing, swiftly taken care of.  The road was unexpectedly paved from here for another 100 miles and so our slow pace so far was quickly recovered, although the cross wind was increasing by the minute and making driving a very tiring experience.

I have often observed that borders are set for a reason.  Sometimes a watershed in the mountains, sometimes a river or occasionally a cultural boundary.  Immediately crossing this border, even though it continues around the Lake Buenos Aires, we leave the mountains behind us and we are in a high, gently undulating, semi-desert plain with scrubby grass and large expanses of just sand, not unlike parts of the altiplano in Peru.  After 100 miles the road turned back to dirt, with parts of the new Ruta 40 running alongside, asphalted surface, waiting to be commissioned, teasing us to dare to use it when it was officially not opened.  But the frequent gaps for culverts or bridges not yet completed prevented us from trying.  The dirt road was roughly graded, with deep sections of gravel and occasionally deep sand also.  In places the soft, loose surface turned to fine dust sending clouds of opaque dust up into the air and behind an occasional truck, impossible to pass.  And so it continued for another 120 miles, on and off sections of completed hard top surface between sections of deep and rough dirt until we reached the destination for today, Estancia La Angostura, a working ranch located at the end of about 3 miles of rough dirt track in the middle of nowhere.  Spit-roast lamb, homemade sausage and home grown vegetables washed down with some acceptable wine, and then writing up this blog before an early bed-time.   A hard, but rewarding day and only one minor spill without damage.  I am physically exhausted from riding on rough roads.

Estancia la angostura – El Calefate: 200 Miles: half dirt, no fuel and high winds

The Estancia La Angostura serves to show just how hard living out in the wilderness can be.  The nearest “town” is about 200 miles away so they have to be pretty self-sufficient in just about everything. Sheep and cattle seem to be the main economic activity, but also increasingly adventure tourism with some trekking and horseback riding thrown in to savour the “frontier” lifestyle on the way to some other out of the way place.

Estancia La Angostura - Old Wagon

Talking of out of the way.  Yesterday’s ride provided a little challenge in addition to the riding for the bikes with the smaller fuel tanks since we had no fuel for the last 245 miles.  For my bike, with a 33 litre tank, this was not a problem.  But today, the nearest fuel on route is at nearly 100 miles away on gravel roads.  Again for my bike, 345 miles is not a problem, but with the first 100 miles of rough gravel road, strong, in fact gale force, side and head winds, the fuel range is sure to be affected….assuming of course that they have fuel.

Ruta 40 Patagonia - rough roads

I mentioned that I arrived physically exhausted yesterday.  This was primarily as a result of riding along the Ruta 40 gravel road.  Each “road” has its own characteristics.  While some sections of Ruta 40 are now smooth, pristine tar, the section we travelled today was the original rough road, in places deeply rutted and with rock chippings and loose gravel.  As they are in process of upgrading some parts of this section, even the Ruta 40 itself is bypassed by an even more roughly bull-dozed detour while the main “road” is being fixed.  The main challenge is to keep to the wheel ruts of the buses and trucks that use the road because these are more compacted and provide better and more predictable grip.  But these tracks are usually only the width of 2 wheels, or about 80 cms…or more precisely, 40 cms on each side of your front wheel.  The deep ridges of gravel on each side of each wheel rut is often 10-15 cms high and almost impossible to cross as it is unconsolidated and grabs the front wheel out of your grip.  With a 50 mph side wind, it is a constant battle to keep the bike between the adjacent gravel ridges and you are always squirming in and out of the rut, with the bike leaning over at 10-15 degrees into the wind just to stay in a “straight” line.  Corners provide another opportunity for wipe outs as the ruts all seem to intersect in spaghetti of smaller tracks with a thin layer of gravel over the whole surface, but also collecting in deeper ridges ready to catch you out if you go into the rut “too hot”.   I had three heart-stopping moments today with the bike out of control and heading sideways down the track, but each time the technology and knobbly tyres somehow managed to keep me upright.  After 60 miles and two hours of fighting gravel and side winds I just had to stop for a “concentration break” having been focused on the 50 metres in front of the bike..  A 15 minute break to re-focus and appreciate the scenery and then back to work!.

Patagonia - Ruta 40

Remote parts of Argentina seem to suffer from fuel distribution challenges such that in the past three days and 440 miles, there has only been one fuel station, and it had no fuel!  For some of the bikes, mine included, we managed to sneak into Calafate on fumes with less than 20 miles left on the range computer.  For others, the reserve fuel supply in the support van was used up fairly quickly.  The answer in these circumstances is to go into any house or village we come across, of which there are very few, and ask if they have some they are willing to sell.  Because of the shortage, people tend to keep a reserve, and sometimes they are willing to part with some either because they take pity on us, or because they can sell it at any price they name as there is no choice.

The first fuel station in 245 miles and it has no fuel!!

El Calafate – Rest Day: Laundry, bike wash and Perito Moreno Glacier

Today was a day to catch up.  But also after the past 3-4 days of long, off-road sections, some bike maintenance and personal maintenance was in order.  I took my bike for a wash, clothes to the laundry and then drove the 80kms to see the Perito Moreno Glacier.  This is interesting in that it is apparently one of the few glaciers still growing, and the snout blocks the intersection of two lakes.

Perito Moreno Glacier

Occasional breaking off of the snout causes the lake levels to suddenly equalize with a gush of water.  Pretty impressive.  I have always been fascinated by glaciers and never fail to be impressed by the sheer size.  These are Mother Nature’s Sculpting processes, modifying the landscape and carving deep, U-Shaped valleys through the mountains.  The Geomorphologist in me is happy!

Perito Moreno Glacier


Leaving Perito Moreno Glacier


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The fourth and final section: Patagonia – Part 1

Santiago – Salto de Laja: 310 Miles – The Pan American Autopista

Today was not intended to be an enthralling day, simply a day to move us South 300+ miles.  Leaving Santiago as a group of 18 bikes in cool, damp and cloudy conditions we made our way quickly through the morning rush hour to the central motorway and turned South on the Pan American, Ruta 5.

Pan American - Chilean style

The immediate surroundings are dominated by vineyards, vegetable and fruit farms on an industrial scale, presumably to serve the needs of Santiago.  We moved on under grey skies with the ever present threat of rain.  Although the temperature hovered between 13-15C (55-60F), the damp conditions and wind made it feel cold and unpleasant, requiring the donning of waterproofs just to keep the wind out.  After 60 or so miles the adjacent fields turned to woodland and several wood processing plants making timber building materials, palettes, etc.  It was getting noticeably cooler also as we headed south.  Stopping for fuel and coffee the scenery changed to bright yellow rape seed plants extending to the horizon.

Rape Seed fields to the horizon

Our destination for the day was Salto de Laja, a small settlement built up around a picturesque waterfall with nothing else but open countryside for miles.  On close inspection the waterfall was the product of a lava flow covering the softer sandstone.  As the softer rocks are undercut by the water’s force, so blocks of the volcanic rock break off into the valley floor below.

Salto de Laja

The cabin based resort overlooked the waterfalls and incorporated within the grounds a 9 hole golf course.  Resembling a ploughed field, the 9 holes provided a relaxing challenge, more so because the bag of rental clubs contained a driver and 3-wood (ideal for a par 3!!), a 7 iron, and a child’s 7 iron, as well as a putter.  So the entire course was tackled with the 7 iron and the putter with every stroke being adapted to suit the club in hand.  Later dinner was taken in the resort restaurant, being entirely adequate, though hardly memorable.  Perhaps the two bottles of wine softened the memory!

Salto de Laja – Pucon: 200 (270) Miles:  Dirt, what dirt?  Making the right decision

Today was a rare day of optional routes.  Since the support vehicle can only follow one route, when an alternative is offered then one of the two routes will be unsupported.  Following yesterday’s “boring” ride along the motorway, today was offered as a more “exciting” ride with 80 miles of dirt, gravel, sand, rock and, unexpectedly…snow through the “interlagos” road – the Chilean lake district.  The “boring” alternative was to continue on the Pan American, leave on the highway 199 to our destination at Pucon, and see very much the same scenery of volcanoes and lakes, but from a paved road surface, not a dirt road.

The decision was easy, and took about a nanosecond to determine …. Guess which one I chose?  I don’t voluntarily do dirt, only when an obligatory part of the route.  Setting off from Salto along Ruta 5, the Pan American, the driving was easy with fairly light traffic and good road surfaces.  Adopting a more “sports” stance on the bike, with cool, dense air and only a few hundred metres above sea level, the bike was running very well, especially after a recent service in Santiago.    The performance-sapping high altitude rides often makes one forget just how powerful these bikes are when given a chance on good road surfaces, and so the 200 miles of motorway were dispensed in less than 3 hours of relaxed, but spirited riding.

Between Pucon and our destination we rode through a section of dense Spanish Broom (Spartium?).  The intense yellow flowers and strong scent created a feast for the senses lining both the roadside and the valley over which we passed on a narrow bridge.

Spanish Broom along the valley sides near Pucon

The destination being reached by around 12:30, we rode up the mile long gravel path to the Mirador de Volcanes resort on a hillside overlooking a spectacular lake and volcano vista, although somewhat obscured by low cloud which had persisted all day.  Realising that the resort does not serve lunch we unpacked the bikes and returned to Pucon, the nearest town.  This is a tourist town built on the side of a volcanic lake offering not only pleasant surroundings, but also water sports and thermal springs in several directions bearing testimony to the presence of volcanic activity.  Instead of going to a restaurant for lunch, especially as tonight was a group meal at the resort, we opted for a visit to the supermarket for fresh bread, local cheese, ham, salami and two bottles of really quite good wine.  Feeling slightly guilty at having had such a good day and arriving early, in addition to our lunch we also bought beer, wine and snacks to greet the weary travellers who would later arrive having undertaken the off road section.

The off-roaders arrived at around 5PM, a full 4 hours after us.  Tales of deep snow, closed roads, several having fallen off their bikes in steep, rutted bends convinced us that we had made the wise choice to take the highway.  And on top of that there were no tales of stunning scenery, so I guess that we missed very little and gained quite a lot in terms of time, tranquillity and wear and tear on the bikes and ourselves…. A good choice.

Tomorrow, no such choice of route according to the route notes…100 miles of gravel and sand packed roads to San Carlos de Bariloche….and maybe some snow too…I can hardly wait!

Pucon to San Carlos de Bariloche:  220 Miles:  Choices?  And volcanic ash clouds.

Today was one of the best riding days I have had, not because of any one specific riding experience or stunning landscape, but just the collection of events during the day.  Our resort last night was one of the better locations we have stayed on the trip.  The 3 bedroom/2 bathroom cabins were located on a hillside overlooking volcanoes and a volcanic lake.  Each cabin had a master bedroom/bathroom (which having arrived early, I claimed for me!) and in the common kitchen/dining/lounge area a wood burning stove which I lit.  My bedroom had another wood burning stove which served not only to dry my daily clothes washing, but also keep me toasty warm all night!!

Mirador de Volcanes resort near Pucon: View from my window

Leaving at 8:30 we set off towards the Argentina border, some 50 miles away.  After 30 miles of excellent road winding up through the mountains to the border post the road signs read “zona de curvas peligrosas y pendientes Fuertes” or Area of dangerous curves and steep gradients…. A few hundred metres later the second sign reads “Fin de calzada” or End of paved surface.  Immediately the road turned to deep gravel, tight hairpin bends and steep gradients. Engaging second gear, standing on the pegs and concentrating hard we negotiated the first few miles until the road levelled out into a high plateau where we found the Chile immigration post. Documents stamped we hen moved to the Argentinian post and did the reverse, entering ourselves and then the bikes into Argentina one more time. As we have seen before, the Chile-Argentina process is relatively straightforward and the desks are numbered 1, 2, 3, 4 which are followed in sequence to get all the stamps, forms and formalities of entry.  The Argentinian dirt road was smoother than the Chilean equivalent which had been rutted, an occasionally washboard surface and with deep gravel in sections.  Stepping up to third and fourth gear we moved along at 40-45 mph rather than the 20-25mph on the other side.   After about 35 miles of rough surfaces the road once again turned into smooth asphalt surface and one has to ask why they did not finish the job?

And so we continued, with the promise of only 60-70 miles more of dirt later in the day.  Following the route notes we deviated off the main road to a smaller regional road and across a river, while the satellite navigation system told me to continue on the main road. While stopping for fuel just inside this road I took the chance to look at more detail at the map and realised that the purpose of taking the smaller road was to “enjoy” a long section of dirt road along a lake shore.  But the map clearly indicated a good main road to the same destination, along the opposite bank of the lake/river.  Emboldened by our wise decision yesterday to avoid the dirt unless absolutely necessary we sent a message to the leader to say we were taking the alternate route.  Although unsupported should we have a mechanical breakdown or accident, the choice between twisty mountain roads with good views or dirt tracks with similar views was compelling, so we returned to the main road and enjoyed some of the best riding so far with sever4al challenges.  We also officially entered into Patagonia.

Entry to Patagonia

Patagonia extends from the 39th parallel to the Straits of Magellan and was so named by Fernando de Magellanes the Portuguese sailor during his 1520 voyage to South Amercia under service to hte king of Spain to find a route to the pacific around the tip of South America.  Encountering the local indians, the Tehuelche tribe, he noticed that they naturally had large feet, which in derogatory Spanish would be Patagones…hence Patagonia or the land of the big feet.

We were told to expect high winds in Patagonia, and almost immediately encountered them.  Strong, gusty winds that seem to come from several directions at the same time.  Also cold and damp.  Sometimes leaning at ridiculous angles while riding in a straight line to counteract the strong side wind, only to be blown half way across the road with a gust from the opposite direction.  It was actually fun to do this, especially around the twisty mountain roads.  To our right was a large lake gradually opening up from a river and probably a reservoir, though we did not see any dams.  The landscape resembled the altiplano (high plains) that we had seen in Peru in some respects with an essentially flat valley floor with mountains fringing the low lying areas, often with snow caps.  But now we are at 1,00 metres above sea level, not 4,000 metres.  Being mid-late spring and now at 40 degrees south, the snow lingers for longer.

In the distance we could see that the visibility was diminishing quickly.  With the strong wind it was unlikely to be fog or mist.  And above the opaque, white lower elevations the sky was essentially cloud free, so rain was also ruled out at the cause of reduced vision. Approaching at 60-70 mph, playing with the cross winds, the cause became clear as it was a dust storm, whipped up by the strong winds over the sandy semi-arid valley floor.  But this was no Saharan dust storm as we used to see in dry season in Nigeria, nor the kind of sand storm which would occasionally engulf Riyadh when we lived in Saudi Arabia.  The white, fine dust was blanketing the surrounding countryside in snow-like drifts resembling a winter scene.  It became obvious that this was volcanic ash from the Puyehue volcano which began to erupt in June and is still blowing ash even now.  At times the visibility was reduced to just a few metres making driving quite hazardous along the winding mountain roads with heavy truck traffic in both directions.  Geologically this was a fantastic opportunity to see the actual deposition of a layer of volcanic ash which up until now I had only studied in rock exposures and which I had seen for much of the trip through Central America in road cuttings.  Now to see it actually in the process of formation was a real bonus.

Ash layer on side of Ruta 40 from Puyehue Volcanic eruption

Ash cloud over the lake

But of course there was a downside.  The volcanic ash is in fact a very fine powder of volcanic glass which permeates everything.  Soon my eyes were beginning to scratch and breathing in the fine dust made me sneeze.  With visor closed and bandana tightly wrapped around my mouth we battled the wind, dust and traffic for more than two hours and more than 100 miles of choking ash clouds until emerging on the other side close to the city of San Carlos de Bariloche, the winter ski resort, summer water sports resort and mid-season…..who knows what?  Tomorrow I’ll find out.

San Carlos de Bariloche – Rest day

When we arrived yesterday the wind was blowing at gale force over the lake, driving white capped waves towards the shoreline.  It was not really raining, but water droplets whipped up in the stiff breeze gave the impression of a fine mist.  It rained overnight, and the volcanic ash suspended in the lower atmosphere was precipitated out, leaving every surface coated in a fine whitewash.  Waking this morning the wind had not subsided though the sky was clearing of the grey clouds of yesterday.  The dust and sand was everywhere and even the shortest walk along the shoreline left our mouth full of fine sand and hair in a wind-tangled mess of damp sand.

Bariloche looking over the lake shore to volocanic ash cloud in mountains opposite

Needless to say my walk to see Bariloche this morning was fairly brief.  The shoreline along to the main square and then in two parallel roads to catch the main streets.  Bariloche is well known for skiing in winter and water sports in the summer.  But now we are mid-season, neither winter nor summer and the ash cloud has caused the airport to be closed for some months which has diminished the number of tourists even further.  Judging by the closed down businesses I am assuming that the ski season was significantly impacted by the ash cloud as the only other way to get here is by tourist bus, perhaps as many as 24 hours’ drive from Buenos Aires, or 5 hours from Neuquen.

Civic Centre - Bariloche

The impression is of a typical tourist ski or seaside town out of season.  The architectural style is very Germanic or Swiss with lots of exposed wood and chalet style buildings.  The original settlement I understand was populated by German immigrants which accounts for the building styles.   The majority of the tourists appear to be retirees, wrapped up against the biting cold wind, sheltered in café’s or aimlessly walking around the tourist shops selling identical sweaters, gloves, tee-shirts, leather goods or hats.  But Bariloche is also famous for its chocolate tradition and there are many chocolate shops also.  I can imagine the city as a buzzing tourist place in high season, but right now it is a little subdued.

Like just about every building we have seen in Bariloche, the cathedral is also new, dating from the early 1990’s and constructed in concrete with local rock cladding for a more rustic appeal. Although the concrete structure is exposed throughout the building, the simplicity of the form and the bright stained glass windows are nevertheless attractive. I was speaking with a local resident during lunch and she told me that when she came to live here 23 years ago, the city was just three blocks square…it has certainly grown since then.

Bariloche Cathedral

Bariloche Cathedral - Interior



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The road to Santiago de Chile and a few days of rest

Catamarca – Villa Union: 275 Miles: Monotony followed by dirt

Today seemed somewhat contrived.  What do I mean by that?Yesterday’s drive through a geologically and visually stunning landscape prior to arrival at the hotel, and indeed, all on good road surfaces, was an unexpected pleasure.  Today created a certain level of expectation as it promised a “spectacular dirt road through red rock valleys”, the Cuesta de Miranda. As regular readers you will know that I am not a fan of driving on dirt, gravel, sand or rocks, but if the landscape is stunning, or the route demands it, then I will make the effort.

Today’s ride involved passing obliquely from the valley in which Catamarca is located, across two other valleys and arriving at Villa Union for a distance of about 275 miles, of which 15 miles were rough dirt roads through the Cuesta de Miranda.  It seemed to me that the route and non-descript stops were chosen solely for the purpose of riding a short off-road section. So while I realise that many of our riders are avid off-road addicts, for me it was an unnecessary detour.  Though it has to be said that I had not researched any other, potentially more interesting route that might have avoided the dirt section, so I will stop whining!!

Leaving Catamarca on Ruta 38 and then turning onto Ruta 60 on flat-to-undulating roads across a wooded valley we climbed out of this valley into the adjacent valley. Yesterday I had noticed that each valley, although seemingly similar, had its own unique character.  Sometimes fertile and intensively worked for agriculture as we saw yesterday with tobacco drying sheds, wheat, etc, but then the next valley would be semi-arid, scrubby desert with almost no agricultural activity. The next valley, in Catamarca for example would be wooded.  Perhaps this is indicative of the proximity of the water table to the surface, or perhaps an issue of land ownership and investment in agro-economic development.  In some valleys the intensive agriculture would abruptly stop where the irrigation stopped, and change immediately to a barren desert.  I have become increasingly aware of the marginality of land without water, and the challenge of feeding my 7 billion fellow humans on this planet.

Over the ridge into the next valley

Passing over the ridge from one valley to another we encountered a large irrigation scheme feeding agriculture for a part of the valley floor (above).  The next valley over was largely semi-arid, stunted trees with low density, but with yellow grass at the end of the dry season indicating that at least at some time there is water available.  We are also getting into the area where we are encountering more and more gullies set into the road surface to accommodate rapid and high volume run-off from flash floods in the mountains lining the
valley.  The frequency and depth of these concrete gullies as we progress through the day and quite clearly there is a substantial volume of water flowing through these conduits and across the valley when it rains hard.  We had seen a photo of a previous bike group wading thigh deep in a raging torrent of mud and debris in one of these gullies back in February.  A few goats, a few donkeys, and occasional cattle, but apart from that little of consequence to note on the straight, flat, monotonous ride across the valley…although the increasing frequency of the gullies did lead to a roller-coaster type ride for some of the journey and broke up the monotony to some degree.  In one part I noticed smoke rising from the land adjacent to the road, and thinking it might be burning off the stubble from an earlier crop, I looked closer.  But in fact, typical of many small towns in developing copuntries, it was just a local refuse dump where the detritus of human waste is burned in a communal pit.

Just prior to the Cuesta de Miranda we took a rest stop at a roadside roast chicken take-away shop, and enjoyed some home-made empanadas. Seeing our bikes, others of the group also stopped, and within 20 minutes or so we had a half dozen riders all sampling the delights of spit roast chicken and chunky fried potatoes.

The Cuesta de Miranda started on paved roads, slowly deteriorating until we reached the unpaved section which curled its way up the canyon, clinging to a sheer cliff face, barely one lane wide.  With a mixture of hard-packed dirt, gravel filled ruts and occasional patches of deep sand on the corners, it was not a difficult ride, but the absent, or low wall alongside the steep drop into the abyss meant that concentration was required for the entire 15 mile section.  Initially rising up several hundred metres, then levelling before dropping again it provided some interesting moments.  I don’t know which I like the least….up or downslope on loose, gravelly surfaces. Just before reaching the excellent tarred surface at the other end (why did they not continue??) there was a section of flat, but deep gravel for a few milescausing the back wheel to sqirm and slide while I put the weight on the front wheel by standing up and leaning forward.  Geologically the red rock canyon was not interesting being mostly flat lying sandstone.  The canyon was not large and the views, although pleasant were not as “spectacular” as promised.  I think perhaps the deep red colour was the draw rather than the landscape per se.

A few miles later and we were in Villa Union, a non-descript, sleepy little town, and we were staying on the outskirts….The hotel, restaurant and facilities were all adequate and we planned the next day and an early start after an average meal.

Villa Union to Uspallata:  365 miles: Monotony continues, lunch was the highlight, and another non-descript town.

My account of yesterday’s ride would indicate that it was not memorable.  Today’s can hardly be counted as more memorable, other than a thoroughly enjoyable, if brief, excursion into Mendoza for lunch.  The mostly flat semi-arid landscape continued, though with the constant tease of mountains hazily flirting with us in the valley margins. The road once again punctuated with concrete gullies set deeply into the tarmac surface indicated that flash floods must be pretty spectacular in the rainy season.  Frequent road-sign warnings warned of not driving into water…… so I guess that it must get pretty intense at times even if they are short-lived events.

The distance today was substantial but not huge, and the road was not difficult, but at 365 miles it demanded an early start.  We set off at a brisk pace and were able to maintain a steady 60-70mph in sunshine and temperatures of 20-30C all day.  By 1:30 PM we had accomplished 280 miles and decided to reward ourselves with lunch in Mendoza.

We had noticed since Catamarca the presence of vines growing alongside the road.  With irrigation in semi-arid climates vines seem to do very well, and as Mendoza is a very well-known wine producing region, the increasing presence of vineyards was evident.  My riding partner, Monica had visited Mendoza two years ago while climbing the tallest mountain in the Americas – Aconcagua –  located just to the West.  She had a strong recommendation for a restaurant in town, which being located just a few miles from our route and on account of our having made good progress during the day, we decided to follow the recommendation being joined by a couple from Holland, Alan and Margaret.  The location, food, service and wine were all as good as she remembered and was the highlight of the day.  Our destination for today, Uspallata, sadly meant limiting our wine intake so we set off around 4 for the small town located near to the Chile border and used as a base during skiing season for the slopes in the area.  But our brief excursion into Mendoza led to our asking ourselves why we had not stopped in the vibrant, well laid out city in preference to the sleepy little village just 60 miles down the road.  Mendoza is on my list of places to come back to…..although I neglected to mention that we were stopped by a police patrol on our way in, and warned about street crime and the advice not to stop en route to the centre…we saw nothing of this and were favourably impressed by the city.

The final 65 miles or so were through gently rising roads into the mountains forming the border with Chile.  This is clearly an important cross border road and the truck traffic began to increase significantly.  Working our way through the truck convoys along the winding roads, we then had a sudden, heavy but brief rain shower.  We arrived an hour and a half later, at the little town of Uspallata, just a little damp but otherwise happy to have the 365 miles behind us.

It rained just after we arrived and fairly constantly for most of the night…. Which on the surrounding mountains through which we were about to pass the following day, was of course a fresh layer of snow on all the peaks.

Uspallata to Santiago: 150 Miles:  Back to Chile, snow
on the mountains and a winding road

The 365 mile journey yesterday followed by a mere 150 miles today somewhat reinforced my view that Mendoza would have been a better solution to stop the previous night, with a good supply of good restaurants, a pleasing downtown area and plenty to see. But nevertheless someone must have decided otherwise for a good reason…perhaps they listened to the police warnings too?

Fresh snow on the mountains between Argentina and Chile

The fresh snow on the higher elevations sent a cool wind down the valley we are about to follow to the border with Chile.  Rising from 6,000 feet or so to above 10,000 feet the air began to feel cold quite quickly. This was exacerbated by the variable, and sometimes fierce wind, blowing into our faces and often making the drive quite a challenge through the twists and turns of the interlocking valley spurs which led to the border.  We stopped to capture a few good vistas, but for the most part just pressed on.  The now defunct Trans Andean Railway ran mostly alongside the road, with occasional bridges across the river.  One place which I thought was very curious was the natural sulphur spring with a geologic arch over the river.  Some buildings had been erected, and abandoned, alongside which indicated perhaps some mining operation at some stage in the past.

Sulphur springs in the river valley near chilean Border

As we passed Aconcagua the mist was such that no good opportunities presented themselves for a photo.  The absence of a good stopping point for the bikes also precluded waiting for it to clear.  As the temperature approached freezing we crested the valley head at the border with Chile.

The border crossing was a little more complicated than our entry from Chile into Argentina.  This was not only because this was a busier border with buses but also the system seemed more complicated, and I am not sure even now just exactly what the process was we had to follow….Desk 1: Exit Argentina with passport, Desk 2 Enter Chile with Bike, Desk 3: Enter Chile with passport, Desk 4: Exit Argentina with Bike…go back to Desk 1 and 2 to get some extra stamps on a piece of paper….(why??) and then go outside for a bike inspection by the agricultural inspector…another stamp on duplicate forms….and then hand one copy in at the exit to the border station,.,.,.and we are on our way.

The Chilean Border - Again

The first mile or so was pretty amazing……a staircase of winding roads snaking down the mountain in which we dropped maybe 2,000 feet in a matter of a mile or so through a sequence of 22 switchbacks before levelling out into a gently sloping valley floor.

Amazing road from Chilean border

We followed the road for another 80 miles or so into the city of Santiago, negotiating our way through the light Sunday afternoon traffic alongside the river and to our hotel. This was a short day and left us in the city by early afternoon.

Santiago: – Rest days, Bike servicing and new tyres

It is hard to believe that we have already covered nearly 7,000 miles since we last serviced the bikes and changed tyres in Bogota and Medellin in Colombia.  We have covered over 30,000 kms since we started.  But the odometer does not lie and so we are once again carrying our heavy wallets to the BMW dealer for necessary maintenance, leaving with wallets considerably lighter!  We are also changing tyres for “knobbly” off-road tyres as we are planning to meet the challenge of Ruta 40, the Carretera Austral and Patagonia on our way south to Ushuaia before turning back north to Buenos Aires.

Santiago is a clean, modern, well laid out city of around 6 million people, lyng in the flat plain between mostly volcanic mountain ranges, some of which are snow covered on their summits.  With many options to occupy our time, having dropped the bikes off for service I went to Cerro de San Crisobal, a volcanic hill in the centre of the city, now hosting the zoo and a chapel and statue on the crest.  The funicular is the easiest way to the top.

Statue of he Virgin Mary onthe crest of the Cerro de san Cristobal

The views over the city show the landscape well, with flat lying valley floor and surrounding mountains.  It also shopws the well laid out road system which, togegther with disciplined driving habits of the Santiago inhabitants, maintain a very good traffic flow.

Santiago skyline - multiple volcanic hills and santa Lucia park

Having decided to walk down the hill instead of takin the funicular, with a basic hotel map I found the main square or Plaza de Armas in which the cathedral is located, as well as the main museum. Later on (see below) I returned to the Plaza de Armas for the tribute concert to Violeta Parra.

Facade of Santiago Cathedral in Paza de Armas

The following day, having been informed that the bike was ready, I collected it and went for tyres before returning to the hotel and planning the rest of the day.  This consisted of a walk to the Museum of Fine arts and a concert in the square.  The Museum is a fine building, and I found a special exhibition dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Roberto Matta’s birth, a famous Chilean artist.  His style is quite unusual mixing themes and techniques, sometimes resembling Picasso in style (to my untrained eye, at least).

Roberto Matta Work in Museum of Fine Arts

With several galleries of what I consider to be modern art, I was more impressed with the neo-classical building with the interior glass dome  than I was with most of the art contained therein!

Museum of Fina Art - santiago: Inner gallery with glass domed roof

Later that evening I went to the Plaza for the open air concert honouring Violeta Parra, a singer, songwriter and poet of the 1960’s and also communist and political activist.  She committed suicide in 1967, but was recognized as being the proponent of new Chilean music, the “nueva cancion” being a folk, blues, rock fusion.  Her granddaughter sang in the concert.  I noticed that the most;ly student crown with whom I stood shoulder to shoulder for 3 hours were smoking illegal substances all around me and all manner of facial piercings set me aside from the rest by at least 35 years and quantum leaps of cultural identity!

The final two excursions involved firstly a winery tour of the Concha y Toro vineyards followed by a bike ride to the beach near Valparaiso.

Original residence of Don Melchor de Concha y Toro

Don Melchor de Concha y Toro brought vines from Europe to Chile in 1883 and established what is now Chile’s largest vineyard.  The Casilero del Diablo (“the devil’s house”) is a world renowned brand of both table wines and more noble vintages, the premium one bearing the name of the founder, Don Melchor.

The story of the Casillero del Diablo relates to suspected theft of the finest wines by Don Melchor from his private celler for family use.  Praying on the superstitous nagture of the population, he put out the rumour that the devil inhabited the celler, and seemingly it stopped any more pilfering.  If you look carefully at the end of the wine rack on the right, you will see the silhouette of the devil against the far wall.

Casillero del Diablo

The final treat of the day was to make a 150 mile round trip to the coast from Valparaiso south and back to Santiago.  Having found a quiet fishing village and a restaurant overlooking the sea, life could not have been better today……

Pacific coast south of Valparaiso - Life does not get much better

Wrap up:  Santiago and its surroundings have reinforced the positive feelings I had as I entered the country.  The city is an absolute delight to visit, culturally rich, easy to navigate and well maintained.


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Chile…Argentina…Chile..where are we today? Part 1

Border to Arica

Continuing from Peru, the desert remained dominant in the landscape.  The temperature also continued to be much cooler than I would have expected.  The road was good and progress rapid as we continued, with the sea on our right side, to Arica.  This is a medium sized town with many functions:  As a regional port for commercial and private shipping it seems to be very busy with the port facilities just a block or two from the downtown area and the main square. Also, being close to the border it serves as an arrival point or leaving point for the border and so serves tourist and commercial traffic by road.

From the border to Arica

Immediately entering Chile there is a more European feel, and a new approach to driving habits. The buildings seem more regular and uniform, and the evidence of planning is much greater than in Peru.

The Fuji Mori era of subsidized housing led to the unintended consequence of a more chaotic urban development style which is less evident in Chile from the border onwards.  The level of education is evident in the driving habits also.  It is not the existence of laws which makes for good order, but the obedience to them. Since leaving the USA we have become accustomed to open flaunting of traffic regulations – crossing the double median line on blind corners, exceeding the speed limits, often by more than double…but immediately in Chile we notice a change in attitude to keep, more or less, to the limits and not approach oncoming traffic three abreast with double overtakes!

We stayed in the Hotel Arica Beach resort, just outside of the town but within easy walking distance of about 15 minutes, and overlooking the private beach.  Somewhat faded glory but nevertheless, entirely delightful to fall asleep to the sound of crashing
waves against the sea shore.

Arica – Iquique 200 Miles: Coast – Desert – ghost town and coast

Although I had an immediate favourable impression of Chile, leaving the city this morning and heading inland one comes across a shanty town development nestled in the valley which leads down from the high desert plateau to the city.  From what we can see, this desert plateau, about 2,000 (600 metres) high extends almost to the coastline for hundreds of miles.  Rising rapidly through a series of steep switchbacks, we gain elevation and lose humidity until once again we are in high desert. This tilted plain continues to rise to 4,000+ feet (1,200 metres) and continues at this level  for a hundred miles, occasionally rising and affording long views over barren desert.

Desert plateau

Endless desert

The plateau climbs in a series of steps, and after many miles of long, straight road, suddenly there is a series of tight bends to rise up, or drop down to a new plateau.  As heat and aridity sap the strength and concentration, these can creep up on you suddenly and lead to rapid deceleration to avoid going into the tight bends “too hot”.  One sudden and dramatic feature was the valley de Camarones which dropped from over 4,000 feet to less than 300 feet in a matter of a few twisting miles along the slope of a huge sand dune.  Reaching the bottom afforded spectacular views along the valley.

Climbing out of the Valley of camerones

The valley floor was green with both trees and commercial farming. The water table must be close to the surface.

Taking a side canyon we again started to climb and in no time were back up to 4,000+ feet and once again in hot, arid desert for a hundred miles or so;  the flat, straight road from horizon to horizon once again punctuated by steep bends as the plateau changed on elevation, presumably through some fault guided tectonic movements.

We had been travelling south for some time, in parallel to the coast but a hundred or so miles inland on the high desert plateau, and now it was time to return to the coast.  At the turn there was a recommended stop at an old abandoned nitrate mining town of Humberstone.  Built in the late 19th century it was worked until 1960 when it was abandoned.  It is now a “time capsule” ghost town and managed as a UNESCO world Heritage site. I walked around and imagined how life would be.  As with many oil camps, the town was very complete and housing and recreation facilities were of a good standard for the time.  They had to be to keep people satisfied in the middle of a vast, dry, dusty desert.

Humberstone - World heritage site



A few tens of miles later we began our rapid, twisting descent down to the coastal town of Iquique. The desert plateau reaches right up to the coast, and Iquique stretches along a ribbon of sand between the plateau and the sea, with only a vast sand dune in between.  The hazy sunshine of the late afternoon and the inability to pull over and stop on the helter-skelter winding road precluded capturing any photos of the dramatic scenery.

Iquique is a large town with a very European feel to it.

Iquique to San Pedro de Atacama: 300 Miles:  Coast, High
desert and a little dirt at the end

Today was a fairly long day at 300 miles, but as it incorporated essentially only 2 roads, and a couple of bends in the middle, it seemed to be a continuous ride.  The first 150 miles was following the coastline to Tocapilla.  The high, sandy, desert plateau from which we
descended yesterday continues to dominate the coastline and the coastal road is cut into the slope of the vast sand dune which drapes up against the plateau.  The day started with grey, dull cloudy skies and a hazy mist over the Pacific Ocean.

Iquique to san Pedro - Coastal desert plateau next to the sea

Other than to say that the coastal road was mostly straight with water on one side and 1,000 metres of sand dune and volcanic ash cliffs on the other, there is nothing else to mention for the first half of the day.  At Tocapilla there is a deep ravine breaching the plateau leading to the ocean.  We turned left into the ravine an immediately started to climb up the valley to the desert floor of the plateau at 1,200 metres (4,000 feet).  Although we enjoyed unbroken sunshine for the entire day, the cool sea breeze or the altitude kept the day fairly cool unless one stopped and no longer had the wind chill effect of the movement of the bike.

As we penetrated further into the desert, the altitude began to increase and what appeared to be a flat plateau of 1,200 metres of featureless sand from horizon to horizon was actually an inclined plain which eventually crested at more than 3,000 metres (11,000 feet) before dropping into the Atacama Desert proper at 2,500 metres (8,000 feet).  There were small mining communities along the road with apparently modern mining techniques and international operators.  The road was good quality asphalt for the entire day and we were easily able to maintain a leisurely 65 mph all day.  As we arrived in the higher Atacama region, the horizon became dotted with volcanoes. The desert floor of sand was also occasionally punctured with protruding volcanic rocks which give rise to the vast sea of sand in which we are sailing!

High plateau of Atacama with volcanic ridge

Just before reaching the tourist town of San Pedro de Atacama we encountered a turn off into the desert leading to “the valley of the moon”.  This is a 10 miles off-road trail through a geologic nightmare of volcanic features which pierce the desert floor and mix lava flows with ash deposits and vast sand dunes all interwoven within a few square miles.

Vast sand dune entering Valley of the Moon near San Pedro de Atacama

Valley of the Moon with Volcanoes in the distance at the edge of the Atacama

San Pedro – Rest day

I don’t know if getting up at 4 AM can be called a rest day, but the bus trip to the Tatio Geyser field began at 5AM pick up, or a full 2 hours before sunrise.  The purpose of this early start was to see the geysers spewing steam and hot water against the early morning cool air.  The road to the geysers was a rough rock and gravel track for nearly 60 miles…in darkness….Arriving at the geyser field, and having risen to over 14,000 feet above sea level into the higher Andes bordering the Atacama desert comprising a series of volcanoes of various stages of dormancy separated by vast sandy desert, the temperature had dropped to -5C or about 22F….quite cold in fact.

The geyser field was in fact quite small, even if it is the “3rd largest in the world and largest in South America” according to our guide – less than a handful of open holes spilling small quantities of hot water into the air accompanied by similarly small quantities of steam.  And so, only if you go when the air temperature of the early morning is below freezing can you see very much at all.

tatio geyser field

By the time we left, after a “picnic breakfast”, the steam clouds were barely visible.

Adjacent to the geysers was a hot spring at the temperature suitable for bathing, which some of our party did.  With the temperature still around freezing, there was no amount of hot water which would entice me to jump into and emerge into freezing air!

Tatio Hot spring

Leaving Tatio, somewhat disappointed, we went next to a small lake in the middle of the desert fed by volcanic, salty water.  Once again, to see a little water and a few ducks, my bed still looked like a better option.   Perhaps the fact that just a short distance away it had emerged as steam and boiling water and now it was freezing in the cool morning air makes it special.

Volcanic water accumulating into salt lake

Finally the “indigene” (“tourist”) village with all kinds of “artisan crafts” where the tourists outnumbered the villagers by about 50 to 1.

Macuma village - Old indigene settlement

The 60 mile drive back to San Pedro along tortuous rough roads was equally tiring. I don’t think I can find a way of recommending this!!

Before leaving san Pedro we did have a walk around and took a look around the old church, dating from 1570’s and mentioning in its history the original indigene chief “Cacique” who led the local indians when the Catholic miussionaries arrived.

San Pedro Church - dating from 1570's

San Pedro Church - Interior

San Pedro, Chile – Purmamarca, Argentina: 265 miles: Coldest yet but a Geo-Type day of plenty

San Pedro sits at the edge of the Atacama Desert and just a mile from the border post.  Rising fairly early we left for a moderate day’s riding and a chance to enter our 13th and final country, although as you will later see we will bounce from Chile to Argentina several times.  It is a geographic curiosity that the Chilean border post to exit Chile is 100 miles from the Argentinian border post to enter Argentina.    When you see the geography in between, you will understand! Both border posts were efficient and rapid, especially the Argentinian side which was very quick and helpful.

San Pedro lies at about 8,800 (2,800 metres) feet above sea level. Heading East one encounters a line of volcanoes of various ages framing the Atacama.  The road is long and straight up to the edge of the volcanic suture line along the edge of the tectonic plate margin then rises rapidly to over 15,000 feet (nearly 5,000 metres) through a series of steep switchbacks and hairpin bends frequently punctuated with burned out vehicles and memorials bearing testimony to those who have not been as cautious about their journey as we had intended to be.

Volcanic Mountain range along the edge of the high Atacama plateau

Having crossed the first line of volcanoes we then rode for 30 mils or more at high elevation, and low temperature – dropping as low as 0.5C (or 33F) and making us stop more than once to add layers of clothes as the wind chill took it to well below freezing.

But the sun shone and the volcanic landscape of cones, ash layers and lava flows brought out the geologist in me yet again….zzzzzzz.

There was a second line of volcanoes very much like those bordering the Atacama Desert, again rising to 15,000 feet and then a drop into a quite distinct landscape dominated not by volcanic rocks, but now more sedimentary rocks.  In the basins between the mountains salt flats developed as volcanic water spilled out through fissures in the earth’s surface, condensed and formed lakes of salty water. Evaporation causes the salt to be deposited forming flat, white, cracked surfaces.  In some places the salt is commercially mined.  Of course any opportunity to capture a new landscape and the bikes, can never be passed up.

Playing on the salt flats

Dropping down another two thousand feet through a winding valley and with increasing temperature, we arrived at the small town of Purmamarca, nestled in a valley and with fresh water available for growing vegetables and especially fruit for the city of San Sebastian de Juyjuy to the south.  And of course, being a quaint little town in a picturesque valley, the town was also host to a large number of tourists.

Dropping down to Purmamarca - Check out the switchbacks!

Purmamarca – Cafayate: 220 miles:  Getting lost and enjoying it!

As is our habit, we left early to get on the road.  Following the route notes provided it became obvious within a couple of miles that in the 4 years since our leaders last used this road, it had changed quite a bit.   A series of roadworks, detours and new roads all conspired to make this a day when neither our written guidance notes nor our satellite navigation systems were going to be a complete solution to arriving at our destination along the intended path.

Our route guidance suggested a ride through single track roads and cloud forest.  Our actual route took us for long stretches of 4 lane highway until reaching the city of Salta.  The northern area of Argentina is where the largest concentration of indigene population still live.  We read that the Spanish conquest was 95% annihilation through European diseases such as small pox and influenza, and the rest military superiority.  The accounts and postulated theories put forward by Jared Diamond in his book “Guns, Germs and Steel” are quite compelling in accounting for the rapid conquest of South and Central America by the Spanish and Portuguese.

Intentionally or not, we rode through the centre of Salta and I found it to be a pleasant, though quite large and geographically extensive city with a mixture of old, colonial style buildings and new.  The fact that it was about 40C (100F) and traffic was heavy, meant that I did not take the time to know the city.  Emerging on the south side we encountered yet another set of major roadworks and diversions until escaping the city traffic chaos and into the head of a long, dry valley after passing over a ridge.

Immediately the landscape changes and the geology indicates that the valley is a major fault line with twisted and contorted beds of sedimentary rock adjacent to volcanic intrusions.  Over this is a thick layer of glacial deposits and into all is the deeply incised river slicing its way through the tortured rocks.

Approaching Cafayate - Beginning of canyon

Trying to explain, even in my own mind, what the geologic history has been became an impossible task, so I just enjoyed the ride, marvelled a the rocks and took a few photos.


Canyon vista

Occasionally a whimsical rock formation would catch my eye, such as this one, appropriately named El Sapo (“the toad”)

The Toad rock!

Cafayate – Catamarca: 230 Miles – Cold, wet, muddy, scary, warm, dry, twisty,neo-colonial!

Catamarca….Or to give it its correct name, San Fernando del Valle de Catamarca!  Today could not have been more of a contrast.  Indeed, the past three days could not have been more different….From San Pedro in arid desert over 15,000 feet volcanic ridges and freezing temperatures of 0.5C, to yesterday’s trip through Salta and the Canyon of Valle de Lerma near Cafayate in 40C, and today freezing fog, long stretches of the worst roads we have seen since northern Mexico and parts of Nicaragua and Honduras, followed by some excellent mountain roads dropping into Catamarca.

Leaving Cafayate, the sleepy little town based around the wine industry and other agricultural pursuits as the desert gave way to plains and the water table is, I presume, closer to the surface, we crossed the plain covered with vines and occasional cattle and horse ranches.  At 5,500 feet (1,800 metres) above sea level, it felt positively healthy to have so much oxygen available to breath!  The bike also has so much more power after the energy sapping days in mountains above 10,000 feet.

The road we started on was the famous Ruta 40, which in later posts you will see is my Nemesis for its off-road sections, but today was smooth asphalt with concrete gullies for storm water.   As we turned off, heading East on the Ruta 38, the road began to rise, become narrower and the surface became pot-holed, rutted and with several generations of poorly laid patches on a poorly laid road bed it was both difficult and uncomfortable to exceed 40 mph around the tight bends and frequent sudden descents or ascents.   The landscape changed from flat and undulating semi-arid valley floor to dry rounded hills as we rose to nearly 9,500 feet (3,000 Metres) through a series of interlocking valleys and steep sided canyons, until the low cloud reduced visibility to just 30 metres or so.

Speed reduced accordingly as the road continued to deteriorate.  Just before we lost visibility we encountered a veritable forest of cactus plants, reaching as high as 10 metres.  These are called Cardon locally and have an internal woody skeleton which when weathered and dried has a honeycomb appearance and is used for decorative wood

Cactus forest at 4,000 feet

In Chile the exploitation wassuch that it is now illegal to cut them down.

The visibility declined, the temperature dropped to 8C (46F), the road surface deteriorated and as I had not had the foresight to put on my wet weather gloves, I had no way of cleaning my helmet visor.  The Goretex gloves have a clever little windscreen wiper built into the finger and allow me to keep the visor clear.  But with a fine mist and low speeds there was no way of keeping visibility, so with misted glasses I made slow progress.  And then….the road turned into mud as the road crews were in the process of renewing the surface, but for the next 30 miles the surface was scraped off leaving just gravel, rock, mud or bull-dozed landslides through some of the tightest bends and steepest descents we have seen, with the road clinging to the edge of the cliff and deep fall offs on the side.  It was not my favourite road or driving conditions.

At about mile 72 we came across a coffee stop and all was well.  The rain had stopped, the coffee was excellent (and cakes too), and time was taken to clean the visor, change the gloves and re-assemble composure.

From there we had more sections of poor road surface but at least in fairly dry conditions until reaching a good surface for the remainder
of the day.  The valley was flat, with what appeared to be wheat or some other grass based plant on the sides of the road.  With about 50 miles to go we turned off and ascended a series of hills with great riding surface and long sweeping bends.  And so the descent into Catamarca and following ritual of shower and clothes washing, time for a late lunch and evening briefing…and blog catch up!

The square and neo-colonial cathedral at Catamarca

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Peru – From Cusco to Chile

Local Dress: Some observations

I thought I might start this post with some observations on national dress.  I had made the comment while in Guatemala that the women, and sometimes men, had maintained a strong national dress tradition based on the 33 Mayan City customs.  But as we moved from south Colombia into Ecuador, and then Ecuador into Peru, the presence of a national dress becomes more obvious, although once again, primarily in the female population.

The traditional and the modern

The key elements are a wide, softly pleated skirt below the knee.  The skirt can be in solid plain colours (blue, red, yellow, orange etc) or patterned.  On the top, usually a woollen (Alpaca) cardigan or sweater, often a short waist length jacket, and a hat.  The hat, depending on the region, may be a white or beige top hat, a homberg style hat or something resembling a bowler hat.  On the legs, usually some form or woollen leggings especially in the high altiplano where the temperature is lower.

Indigene Market, Sunday morning, Cusco

A key part of the traditional dress is the brightly coloured shawl worn diagonally from left shoulder to right hip on the back.  This is a general purpose garment which sometimes holds an infant child, but equally may hold firewood, harvested maize crop or just about anything.  To counter-balance the load the women lean forward at the appropriate angle for both the weight and the steepness of the surface they are walking on.  The gait is not so much one of walking as a short-stepped trot, at which they move quite quickly

women in traditional dress - Cusco centre

Mix of traditional and modern - Puno

Although some women are obviously dressed in traditional attire when attending a tourist location, as with this woman spinning alpaca yarn in the square in Chivay, it appears that traditional is very strong especially away from the main towns and cities.

Woman spinning alpaca yarn

Another observation I have made is that there is a strong tradition for dancing also.  In the train arriving back from Machu Picchu there was a dance recital of a local native dance, and then at dinner last night we were also treated to an exhibition of indigene dancing.

Native dance recital at dinner

Cusco – Puno:  245 Miles: High plateaux, street dancing and The Lake

The ride through the Altiplano continues much as yesterday.  We left Cusco by a different route and followed a valley for about 40 miles then up and over the valley head into the high plateau where we stayed most of the day.

Valley head up to high plain: Cusco to Puno

The road leading to Puno rises to reveal a panoramic view of Lake Titicaca, or Lake “Titikaka” as it is often spelled here.  This is the highest navigable lake in the world at 3,800 metres above sea level (or 12,500 feet).

Lake Titicaca - first view arriving in Puno

Dropping into the city of Puno and the older central district where our hotel was located, we heard music.  Quite by chance we had arrived on the first day of a 5 day celebration of the founding of the city in 1668 in which the population turn out in great style or dance and play music for more than 6 hours through the streets of Puno.  At this altitude I was struggling to breathe while walking around through the sometimes steep, narrow streets, while these people were dancing for hours seemingly effortlessly.

Street dancers - Puno

Puno street dancers

Puno: A rest day and time to explore Lake Titicaca

Everyone knows of the floating islands of Lake Titicaca from numerous travel programs on the TV, or from postulated transfer of technology from ancient Egypt to South America as suggested by Thor Heyerdal.  The reason for being in Puno was indeed to visit the Islands of Uros and see them first hand.

A short ride on a tourist launch through a channel in the reed forest which extends just offshore from Puno and in 30-45 minutes we are on the edge of a large, artificial island of reeds, with a number of smaller islands separated by a lagoon in the lake.

Channel through the reeds on lake Titicaca to the floating islands of Uros

Seemingly each tour company has a favourite island to visit with their party and we step off from the launch onto a bed of reeds, which gives slightly under our weight and feels altogether like walking on a water bed!

Island scene with guide

Our guide explains that the basis of the island is the root system of the reeds, with a lattice of reeds laid out on top to form a platform.  This is then anchored with ropes to stakes driven into the lake floor.
Every year, at least twice, a new bed of reeds is laid down to counteract the natural sinking of the island. Within the island, which represents a single family or family group, there are a number of single room dwellings. Each house may hold a couple, but more  likely a family group of up to 4 children with parents.

Typical reed house

Interior of typical one room dwelling

The main occupation is fishing in the lake, but we are told that 20% of the income comes from tourism and sale of handicrafts.  We later took a short trip on a reed boat, rowed by two women of the island, to the main island where the school house sits.  The remaining women on the island we had visited, sang us a series of farewell songs in their native language, Spanish and English.

Women singing as we boarded the reed boat to the main island

Reed boat

It was clear that the island we had visited was created for tourism as a short walk behind the school house where tourists are not encouraged to venture, revealed an altogether less sanitized, and in fact somewhat squalid version of island living. The sinking reeds, less well maintained, and what looked like a shanty town of corrugated metal roofs and timber framed shacks.  The origin of the floating islands is not exactly clear it seems, but one must imagine that it was probably a mixture of some kind of persecution or lack of land rights, and also a community which relied on fising for sustenance.

Puno – Chivay: 200(+16) miles: Altiplano at its best

Today could have been one of the worst.  The route notes indicated that the last time the group past this way in 2009 there were long sections of the road which were deeply pot-holed, very rough and coincidental with the highest part of the altiplano which we have seen so far.  Our experience of the altiplano is that the weather can change from sunshine to rain to snow very quickly and roaring gales sweep down from the adjacent mountains making stability of the bikes on the twisty hill sections a real cause for concern.

Not so today.  Leaving the city of Puno by 7:45, with the night revellers still wandering the streets, smelling strongly of cigarettes and alcohol, we headed back towards the city of Juliaca which two days ago we had found to be so unattractive, dusty and chaotic.  But before reaching Juliaca we turned off the main road to see the tombs at Sillustani.  This was only an 8 mile detour and the tombs sounded interesting.  However upon arrival at just after 8 AM, there was clearly not a lot going on, and the well organized parking was a full half mile from the 300 foot hill leading to the tombs.  The thought of walking a mile at 13,000 feet altitude, and then climbing 300 feet on a dirt path in motorcycle boots was enough to convince us that it would have to be absolutely stunning to make it worth the effort…. So, of course we remounted and headed back to the main road!

On the way back we stopped at one of many family compounds for a photo.  The rock walled compounds often had arched doorways and contained a number of individual buildings, perhaps indicating a multi-tier family structure.

Sullistani family compound with llamas

Passing this time through the centre of Juliaca in the morning rush hour, the traffic was again chaotic and roads rather worn, but we did pass through the old town square and main church which looked altogether quite ancient and worth a visit…had we not been in a hurry to get to our destination, not knowing what road conditions or weather we were to encounter today.   As we are on the cusp of the rainy season and so far it has rained almost every afternoon, an early arrival is always our goal.

Leaving Juliaca we started to climb on a well paved, almost traffic free road, into the alitiplano. Llamas, Alpaca, sheep and cattle dotted the flat to undulating landscape of the altiplano plain, with rounded topped mountains on the horizon all around.  The sun shone, the temperature was a cool 13C and the wind quite brisk, but the scenery, the road surface and the blue skies all contributed to make this an excellent start to the ride today.  We continued rising along the broad valley which made up this part of the altiplano, until reaching the valley head, then crossing the ridge and dropping down into the adjacent valley.

Altiplano with lake

We continued crossing a series of ridges and valleys climbing ever higher until reaching 16,020 feet above sea level…or having risen from 3,800 metres at Lake Titkaka to 4,800 metres, before dropping fairly rapidly again into the town of Chivay in the Colca Canyon National Park.

Great riding in the altiplano dropping down to Chivay

The road was almost flawless throughout and the moonscape potholed surface we feared had been asphalted recently leaving just a few patches of rough ground which we could steer around easily.  The sun remained shining, the traffic remained light and we arrived in Chivay at just after 2PM having had a delightful ride in stunning scenery.  The wind had remained keen and with windchill kept us with our jackets and thermal liners throughout the ride.

Altiplano and bike

Chivay is a tourist town where people come to view condors in the adjacent Colca Canyon.  And that is just why we are here too, apart from the fact that it is on the way to Arequipa which is our destination tomorrow.

The square in the tourist town of Chivay

Chivay to Arequipa 100 (+52) miles: Bird watching in the dirt and mistaken first impressions

I rarely volunteer to drive on dirt roads unless there is a good reason.  The 26 miles of dirt road drive each way to Colca Canton was optional, but as I was curious to see condors, I decided that this was the best chance.  We were told that the best time to see condors is around 8 AM.  Also that because there were many tour buses doing the same thing, and that the rough dirt road Is very dusty, it is better to go before the buses depart, at 6AM or else risk being stuck behind a bus covered in blinding dust.  So up at 4:15, shower, dress, prepare bike and on the “road” by 5:45.  It was already quite bright in the early morning sun, but also at this altitude of around 12,000 feet, quite cold…about 4C or 37F.

The first 5 miles were paved then the remaining 21 miles unpaved, but fairly hard-packed dirt with a gravel top.  With my now increased competence and confidence on unpaved roads I was fairly happy to slip along, standing on the foot-pegs to concentrate weight on the front wheel, in 3rd gear at 25-30 mph, except when we hit a landslide area and then it was 2nd gear, 15 mph and fish-tail the rear wheel through loose rock, giving it more throttle to stabilize the line.

Colca canyon is well known, not only for its condors, but also as a deep and long canyon.

Colca Canyon

Arriving at Condor Look out point we sat on the rocks and waited.  Slowly the condors started to rise out of the canyon depths on the thermal currents as the sun’s rays penetrated to the inner canyon walls and warmed them.  While these birds can grow to a significant size, the scale of the canyon is such that only with a good zoom lens can you appreciate them.

Condor in Colca canyon

Condor Colca Canyon

After an hour or so, I was “condored out”, and wondering if I would ever in England drive 42 miles of dirt road to go bird watching!

Driving back to Chivay to pick up with the rest of the group we ascended the same mountain we had come down the day before, rising from 12,000 feet to 16,000+ feet in less than 20 miles through constant switchbacks and hairpin bends.  The views were magnificent as yesterday, but with a narrow twisting road, nowhere to stop and
take a photo.  We did, however, have to stop and let a pack of suicidal alpacas cross in front of us.

Alpaca suicide pact!

After 50 miles of retracing our path from yesterday across the high altiplano we turned south toards our destination for today, Arequipa.  Stopping for coffee at the junction we saw the volcanic mountains which fringe Arequipa, still another 5o miles away.  Mount El Misti is 5,800 metres high, and last spewed significant lava out some 4,000 years ago.  But an ash eruption 2,000 years ago left deep white deposits also across the landscape. Occasional puffs of white smoke are still visible on the volcano top.  The adjacent volcanoes are much older but indicate a chain of volcanoes stretching back in time.

volcan El Misti dominating Arequipa

Volcano chain surrounding Arequipa

The volcanoes are key to the existence of Arequipa in that the snow caps provide a supply of fresh water for drinking and irrigation, the volcanic ash provides a fertile soil and also the easily worked building stone which makes up this “white city”.

The ride to Areqipa dropping several thousand feet to the desert again was not as enjoyable as yesterday’s ride.  Why?  I don’t know.  Maybe because the wind was keen and cold and this time not from the side but directly against us. Maybe because the traffic was heavier with more heavy trucks, or maybe because I was not yet ready for more dusty, sandy barren desert.  It was a short ride, just 50 miles more, and approaching the outskirts of Arequipa past the immense cement plant and then through dirty, dusty and traffic choked suburbs, I was wondering just why we had chosen to stay here for two nights. I was grateful for the satellite navigation system to lead me to the hotel on the edge of the old town.

The daily administration ritual of shower and washing clothes completed, I quickly checked the internet for “what to do in Arequipa”.  Hmmm….cathedral with rebuilt bell tower after earthquake, Convent and monastery both of international fame, restaurants, bars and night clubs and adventure sports.  I wandered out on to the roof terrace near my room and caught sight of the twin bell towers of the cathedral, just a few blocks away.  Also saw the volcanoes towering above the city.  Taking a map from reception and asking directions to where I might find a motorcycle washing service, I set off down a cobbled street towards the old centre.

I was wrong in my first impressions……the old centre of town is richly endowed with hundreds of attractive stone buildings, mostly well cared for, and dating from 17th – 19th centuries. The cathedral occupies one side of the main square, Plaza de Armas, and has been restored to its original glory after the earthquakes which toppled the bell tower.  Many other historic buildings line the narrow streets surrounding the Cathedral including the Convent of San Francisco and Monastery of Santa Catalina.

Arequipa cathedral

cathedral interior

main square - Plaza de armas

A short walk to the river and I found the car/bike washing location and made an appointment for tomorrow. Also found good laundry to wash biking clothes which my now were caked in dust and mud from several off-road sections. Choice…wash off mud or plant potatoes in it!

A pleasant dinner on a terrace overlooking the cathedral and off to the evening briefing before dropping into bed at 9PM!!  It had been a long day.

Arequipa: Rest day and a reality tour

We were offered a “reality” tour of places not seen by the tourist.  I was sceptical at first, but in retrospect it was probably one of the most enriching experiences of the entire trip.  I have commented before that one regret I have of this trip is that we barely touch the lives of the people we see on the drive through.  We wave, sometimes talk when we stop, but to actually experience anything of their lives we do very little.  Today changed that.

The reality tour was organized through our van driver who used to be a tour guide in South America. You won’t find it on any tourist brochures as it takes you to the places that tourists don’t go. Organized by a sociologist who is dedicating himself to helping the poorer elements of society we first visited a street market in the barrio areas where the poor people buy their food.

Well stocked vegetable stall in the market

Many of the poorer people live from day to day being paid as casual labourers or domestic help on a daily basis.  They then go to the market to buy food to keep them and their families until the next day.  I was in fact pleasantly surprised at the variety and presentation of the fruits and vegetables available.  But the meat lying openly on wooden counters, covered in flies, left me a little less enthusiastic.  Potatoes feature heavily on the diet and some potatoes are freeze dried in the mountain air, shrinking to one third of their size, and turning white like stones. Soaking for 3 days restores them to original size.  Black maize is available but only for animal feed or to make a potent alcohol if boiled and left to cool and ferment for 4 days.

Another curious stall was the traditional medicine stall.  Cheaper than a doctor’s visit and steeped in superstition also, traditional medicines of herbs and other items are very popular.  One such item is the  petition to Mother Earth.  A small plastic wrapped package asking for the Earth Goddess to provide money, a good harvest, a match for a son or daughter, health or whatever is prepared.  Couple with this is a foetus of an animal which is associated with the petitioner…like a totem.  These are buried and the Mother Earth Goddess is then favourably disposed to grant the wish.

Petitions to mother Earth Goddess with animal foetus

We have seen coexistent religions in other places too.

Crossing the road to the “poor poor market” where only the cheapest cuist of meat are sold, we encounter the odious smell of rotting meat anbd fish.  One market stall selling cows’ stomachs, genitals, lungs, brains, and all manner of body parts not always associated with food!

The cheap meat stall

The next stop was the stone quarry.  Arequipa is known as the “White City” because of the native stone – a kind of volcanic ash which make an easy-to-cut material.  Unofficially children below 10 and adults into their 70’s work the quarry on family patches hand cutting up to 10 building blocks a day for which they may receive about £3 or $5.  Enough to feed a family of 5 of very basic food.  But the stone is not prized as a building material, and only the poorest of houses will use it.  Better off people prefer mud brick or clay brick.

Stone cutters work - 10 blocks a day

They live in self built basic one room houses near the quarry but do not own the land they live on. They can acquire the rights to the squatters land after 5 years of occupation if they can afford the paperwork.

Stone cutters house


The next visit was to the cemetery.  The graves were mostly decorated with new flowers as we have just celebrated All Souls Day when the dead are remembered.  We were told that there are areas set aside for “grandparent suicides” in unmarked graves as the Catholic Church does not recognize the right to end one’s life by one’s own hand.  But extreme poverty sometimes calls for self-sacrifice to remove mouths from the table. But the bodies are returned to Mother Earth as the traditional religion demands.  I did not get out of the bus as I felt this stop was altogether too voyeuristic.


Our final stop was to Wawa Wasi – a semi orphanage/day care centre for young children.  This is a neighbourhood self-help organization to protect children.  Our guide explained that a very high percentage of girls will be forced into prostitution by their own fathers to help support the family, or indeed will be sexually molested by family members.  The resultant offspring are cared for in these centres while the single mother tries to work to support the child.  This is one of the organizations that are supported financially by the “reality Tour”.

Wawa wasi childrens care house

We were also told that the original shanty towns were set up during the Sendero Luminoso “Shining Path” terrorist times.  A Marxist/Maoist communism and terror group would kill the male head of the family, impregnate the women and steal the children as child soldiers.  Many of the women in outlying mountain villages would therefore secretly leave and come to Arequipa to settle the barrios and protect their children.  These days the Sendero Luminoso is more focused on protecting the cocaine industry we were told.  Drug money is laundered in factories and mines providing not only well paid work for thousands of workers but also tax revenue for the government.  We never hear about this side of the drug wars, eh?

The government attempt to help the poor people championed by President Fujimori when in power provided funds to build a single story house.   As the family grew, additional rooms were added vertically.  Hence many single storey buildings with re-bar extending upwards in anticipation of future building when/if money is available as the family grows.

Unfinished house with re-bar through the roof

Today’s “reality tour” has been enriching, challenging, harsh but has brought us to a sensibility for the lives of the common people of Peru.

Arequipa – Arica (Chile) 270 Miles:  Border crossing, back to sea level

Today was a day to move on from Peru to Chile.  I think that having spent more than a week in Peru, and especially having taken the “reality tour” we have come to know Peru more than perhaps some other countries where we have spent just a few nights.

With only 270 miles, it was not a “big” day, but including a border crossing there is always a sense of the unknown.  Arequipa is at around 8,000 feet above sea level, and leaving the city we almost immediately began to drop in elevation.  Crossing a series of plateaus and crossing a series of ridge and valley features at an oblique angle, we fell from 8,000 feet to sea level at the border.

Arequipa to Arica border crossing with Chile:  270 Miles: Desert…and more desert!

The day’s riding can be summed up very easily.  Miles and miles of desert, dry, dusty, and windswept with a cool temperature regardless if being close to the equator and at low elevation. We dropped from 8,000 feet top less than 1,000 feet only to rise up again to 4,500 feet before again dropping to lower elevations.


Arequipa to Chile Desert landscape

The border crossing was the best we have had so far, with less than an hour to process personal passport control on each side of the border and also the temporary import documents out of Peru and into Chile.  The roads continue to be excellent through the barren desert and we leave Peru in the much the same was as they way we entered it – through dusty, sandy, desert devoid of any plant life and with a cold wind blowing from offshore.

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Peru: The road to Cusco and Machu Picchu

Nasca –Chalchuanca – 225 Miles: Altiplano and wildlife

Sunset over the desert - Nasca

I thought I might start this post with a photo I should have added to the last one…sunset over the desert.  The desert has always held a fascination for me, perhaps because when there is no vegetation to hide the rocks, I can see how they are made….I guess I was always a Geologist at heart!

We are taking two days to reach Cusco, some 450 miles away. Leaving Nasca and the coastal area and heading northeast towards one of the mountain chains on the horizon, we trace a river valley into the first set of foothills towards the high Andes.  The road rises rapidly through a dry, rocky, desert landscape with constant switchbacks yielding ever more spectacular views of the plains below between the steep sided valley slopes.  Nasca is around 2,200 feet above sea level, but in the first 40 miles we climbed to 15,000 feet onto the Altiplano (“high plains”) in a series of steps.

at 7,500 feet and the first high plateau towards the altiplano "high Plains"

The valley head was at 7,500 feet, then crossing a plateau climbing another 7,000 feet into what seemed like the roof of the world.  The nearest equivalent we have seen so far was the Top of the World Highway in the Yukon. My theory of glaciation as being the instrument of creating the deeply ravined hills separating the sandy desert from the rocky desert was born out today as we saw a tributary valley merge with the main valley and a very obvious lateral moraine build up between them. I suppose that even this close to the equator, given sufficient elevation there will have been major glaciers carving the landscape during the last glacial periods….zzzzzz sorry to the non geo-types reading this blog!

Moving from 7,500 feet plain to the alti plano at 15,000 feet

The altiplano is an almost flat, broad valley fringed by even higher mountain peaks on the fringes.  Enough short, scrubby grass grows to support a few cows and sheep, but I suspect that the lack of rainfall must restrict the growth. The landscape bears the hallmarks of a glacial source area where in the last ice age the glaciers would have formed from high elevation snow, and started their journey down the valleys, sculpting and carving their way to the lower elevations.

One benefit of the altiplano is that being flat and sparsely populated, the roads are long, straight and generally in good condition.  We have seen many road crews repairing potholes or indeed complete sections of road at 14,000 feet and above.  The roads in Peru, like Ecuador, are generally very good away from the urban centres.  This means that once on the altiplano one can drive at 60 – 75 mph without problems, except those suicidal llamas!

Altiplano - flat and straight roads

Altiplano vista

Altiplano Vista

In this part there is a wildlife sanctuary and almost immediately we reached the high plains we began to see Vicuña, Alpaca and Llamas…each related to the other (and to camels) but in increasing size! Firstly we glimpsed individuals, but after just a few miles we saw herds of 20-30, many of which were intent on seeing us up close by running across the road just in front of our front wheels! We have seen equally suicidal behaviour with reindeer in Finland a few years ago.

Alpacas on the altiplano

Even at this altitude we find several villages.  The main occupation appears to be llama and alpaca farming and the cool temperatures encourage the animals to grow thicker fur and thus provide a larger fleece for the textile and clothing industry.  I can imagine that life must be hard for these people, and looking briefly at their weather-beaten faces as we pass they grow old quickly through harsh climate, hard work and limited food variation.

Altiplano village at 13,000 feet

Having stopped briefly for coffee we spotted the dark clouds gathering over the mountains and donning our waterproofs we setoff into rain, hail, sleet and light snow for about 20 miles.  The temperature drops to 3C.

Our stop for the night is a resort style hotel adjacent to a river.  We descend from the altiplano at 13,000 feet to 6,000 feet through a long series of twisting roads.  The rain has cleared and the roads are in quite good condition, apart from short stretches of gravel, mud and rock which remain from recent landslides.

Descent 7,000 feet from altiplano to Chalchuanca - a stunning drive

The resort has chalet style accommodation and was clearly once a substantial house and outbuildings from a hacienda, including its own chapel!  The compound is full of dogs of all kinds of breeds and mixtures.  One which caught my attention, and we have seen it in several places, is a hairless breed, which I am told is unique to Peru.  I have to admit to finding the poor creature somewhat ugly, but the pair of dogs were so affectionate that one could not help stroking them.  I am guessing that they don´t get much attention.  The sensation was somewhat akin to stroking the Christmas turkey just as you are about to put it in the oven!

Peruvian hairless dog

Hairles dog - up close and friendly

Chalchuanca to Cusco – 225 Miles:  Endless valley drive with an historic ending

We continued down the valley, dropping to below 6,000 feet through a deep sided chasm.  The valley walls loom overhead some 2-3,00 feet above us. We cross the river several times as the road hugs the valley on alternate sides.

Chalchuanca to Cusco - One of many river crossings

Then rising up again through a side valley we are on our way to Cusco.  The constant twists and turns are a driving challenge and with buses and trucks, making headway is tough.  I have mentioned before that there are frequent roadside shrines to victims of road accidents.  On this road almost every corner has at least one shrine.  We come across a tight bend in the road and a veritable forest of crosses and shrines, all bearing the same date in 2004.  I can only surmise that this must have been a bus that toppled over the edge into the valley, several hundred feet below.

Shrines to 2004 victims on tight bend - road to Cusco

The valley scenery continues to provide a feast for the eyes, as the road surface and twists and dives provides a feast for the senses as a motorcyclist.  Unfortunately they are often mutually exclusive as concentration on driving precludes looking at the scenery.  But today is a short day and so time to stop and capture the moment.

Passing over the ridge from one valley to the next towards Cusco

There was one more adventure to be had, or almost had, prior to arrival in Cusco.  The route notes indicated that we would be deviating from the main road to visit the sacred valley of the Incas.  The regular route briefing last night described this as a pleasant drive through stunning scenery and a chance to see some of the Inca civilization buildings, including a citadel.    So, upon reaching the coordinates on the route notes we set off on the detour only to find a mile later that the road had turned to dirt, gravel and rock.  With no mention of the unpaved nature of the road on the route notes, we nevertheless ventured forward for about 2 miles on an increasingly difficult surface and tight bends and steep ascents.  Stopping to take stock of the situation inasmuch as there was not mention of unpaved roads and no indication in the route notes, even though the GPS Sat nav was indicating we should continue, we convinced ourselves we were on the wrong road.  Retracing our path we went back into the village and asked directions.  This resulted in being sent down another road, which after 15 miles or so, was clearly the wrong road too.  By this time, having wasted more than an hour, we decided to cut our losses and head straight for Cusco.

Cusco is enclosed within a valley, surrounded by hills on which the informal barrio style housing proliferates.  The steep, winding road leading to the centre has frequent deep potholes and passes through some less-than-attractive areas until approaching the historic district.  At this point there is a chaotic mix of one way streets, squares, pedestrian precincts and dense traffic. Entering through what appears to be ancient city gates we are in a colonial architecture time warp of the 16th century with arched covered sidewalks reminiscent of Spain, magnificent churches lining the main square and millions of tourists just like me!

Cusco Plaza de Armas - ChurchTypical Cusco Street in old historic centre

The ornate wooden balconies, clay tile roofs and domed bell towers of the churches are all reminiscent of Spain´s historic districts or “casco antiguo”.

At night the arcades and squares are well illuminated and very attractive.

Covered walkway arcades typical of Spain in centre of Cusco


Cusco Basilica at night


Machu Pichu:  The reason people come to Cusco

It was an early start with a coach pick up from the hotel at 5:50.  The hotel is of course used to the tour group timetable and so breakfast was served from 5 AM!  The bus took us to the train station where we and several hundred others boarded the “Vistadome” carriages for the three-and-a-half hour journey, almost 60 miles to Aguas Calientes station at the foot of Machu Picchu.

Vistadome train on our way to Machu Picchu

I have to say that I was somewhat sceptical whether the Machu Picchu experience could ever live up to all the hype that surrounds it.  Boarding a comfortable train with plenty of leg room around the leather armchair style seats, it at least started positively….and the station was clean and well organized.  I am told that the government decided a few years ago to restrict the number of visitors to no more than 2,500 per day, and at the same time increase the prices.  I think this was a sound decision as we found even with the restricted numbers, the monument was still quite crowded.

The train passes through a long valley with broad sections in which cooperative farming takes place. Each small holding has a few cows, pigs and lots of chickens, but the land is worked cooperatively and the crops sold for the benefit of the community at large.

Train winds its way through the narrow valley to Machu PicchuValley Farm

Valley Farm

Arriving at the base of Machu Picchu we are immediately confronted by dense accumulation of tourist shops selling all manner of memorabilia.  Thankfully as I do not have space on the bike, I was not tempted to indulge in retail therapy.

Tourist shops - the first thing that greets you at Machu Picchu station

Machu Picchu train station

To gain access to the mountain-top city of the Incas one then takes a shuttle bus to climb the thousand feet or more from the valley floor to the monument.  This zigzag path follows a single track dirt road which means that when buses have to pass it is usually in a tight corner or a passing place. I am surprised that given the amount of infrastructure in place that they don’t pave this road and reduce the stress on passengers and vehicles

Zig Zag track from the train station to Machu Picchu

Having employed the services of a guide for the day we were led on a circular tour of this magnificent historic city.  Looking at the surrounding mountains and the difficulty in accessing the site, it is little wonder that it lay undiscovered by the Spanish conquistadores.

mountain terrain around Machu Picchu

We were told that the mountains are part of a giant batholyth (I was asked to explain this!) which is a deep underground chamber of volcanic rock, granite, which has been uplifted and exposed by tectonic forces, and then deeply faulted and fractured.  Later glacial influence has sculpted the current shapes.

Mountains and river course

The history of the city is not at all complete or certain, but it appears that this was the last city of the Incas, constructed in the early 15th century for the 9th Inca king who was expanding his empire from Colombia to Chile. The city may only have housed less than a thousand people subsisting on crops grown in terraces built, step wise, from the valley floor below, all the way up the mountain.

Yes, I really was here!

The name Machu Picchu actually means “Old Mountain” and sits opposite Wayna (“Huayna”)Picchu, which means “New Mountain” and indicates the harmony of opposites which typifies the Inca tradition. The terraces continue right to the top of the New Mountain with apparent ceremonial purposes

Terraces high up on Huayna ("new") mountain

While Hiram Bingham is often credited withe the “discovery” of the “Lost city of the Incas” in 1911, and this year being the centenary, it was in fact the German cartographer, Herman Goering in 1874 who first documented its existence to the outside world when engaed by the Peruvian government to map the area.  Bingham, an historian fron Yale university, was researching the history of Simon Bolivar and was taken to see some piles of rock by a local 8 year old boy.  the rest they say is history, as Bingham was able to bring funds fronm both Yale and the National Geographic to begin excavations and remove all the trees which obscured the site.

One of the things I wanted to see most was the wall construction without mortar and with each block exactly matching the rest.  We were told that the walls of the city are inclined at 8 degrees from the vertical in order to withstand the frequent earthquakes.  Also gaps are left at intervals to accommodate earth movements.  Excavations have shown that at the base of some walls are rounded boulders which also absorb earthquake movements.  Only the royal and ceremonial site buildings are made of dressed stone, the others are held together with mortar.

Perhaps the most impressive building is the temple of the sun

Temple of the sun

Sun Temple Carved blocks

Intricate masonry of the Machu Picchu walls

Our day continued with lunch in a nice restaurant in Aguas Calientes, followed by the train home.  While  walking to the restaurant I was struck by the restaurant “Totos Place”  ….maybe this is Kansas, Toto!

maybe this is Kansas, Toto!

To pass away the time as it was now dark and there was no view, the carriage staff put on a dance exhibition and then a fashion show in the carriage.  All pretty impressive stuff.  Arriving at the station of Ollontaytambo we boarded our bus to take us back to Cusco…only to find that the main square next to the station was partially closed for a street concert.  Also the one way systems had been reversed for some reason but they forgot to tell anyone….absolute chaos as a truck and trailer became stuck in the main road out of town.  An hour, 2 pizzas and several beers later we were on our way back to town.

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Peru – North and Central: Desert sand, rocks and lithoglyphs

The Ecuadorian Border to Chiclayo

I have often thought that borders exist owing to some natural phenomenon, be it physical or cultural. The border between Ecuador and Peru is no exception.  Having dropped 7,000+ feet from Loja to around 350 feet above sea level at the border we moved out of the tropical forest environment and almost imperceptibly into a desert environment. Had we not been concentrating on the twists and turns of the road, and the constant slalom around the patched potholes, I am sure we would have noticed. Crossing the bridge and the river it spans, we are in Peru and everything changes again, just like from Guatemala to Honduras, and Honduras to Nicaragua….

Changing scenery from Ecuador to Chiclayo

Immediately it is drier, and the landscape changes from mountains to a dry, dusty, sandy plain with a driving wind which constantly blows the dust across the road in clouds. Sparse, scrubby vegetation clings to life in the barren soil while mud brick or concrete block informal dwellings appear on the sides of the road, either individually or clustered into hamlets, villages and occasionally towns.  Planning seems to have been absent through the construction process other than to leave the main road as a ribbon of black tar through otherwise sandy and dusty terrain.

As we approach the coastal area we drop to within 50 feet above sea level and the wind becomes more intense, and to my surprise, much colder.  How can this be?  Maybe the cold Humboldt current offshore with wind blowing across it causes this strange sensation as we are but a few degrees off the equator, and close to sea level.  Surely it should be hot and humid like West Africa for example at hte same latitude?  But this is one of the reasons why I am on the trip, to experience the diversity of the planet I share with six-and-a-half billion other people.

As we battled our way to Chiclayo against an ever increasing, cold wind, the landscape becomes less dotted with vegetation until we reach an area of vast sand dunes, distant mountains on the horizon and a driving blizzard of dust which stings against the skin at the 80 mph (130kph) speed we are forced to adopt to have any chance of reaching our destination before dark.  We have tried, not always successfully, to avoid driving in the dark for safety and security reasons, although I have to say that we have yet not encountered any serious concerns over security, but we are taking obvious precautions not to become complacent.  Safety is another issue, and to encounter an unexpected offroad section in the dark is to be avoided.

Chiclayo Desert

The three weary bikers battle against this ferocious gale for 4 hours until reaching the outskirts of Chiclayo.  I did not have any pre-conceived ideas about what this town would look like, but it just appeared, mirage-like, out of the barren desert landscape as a chaotic assemblage of people, buildings and traffic.  Suddenly we are in heavy traffic with suicidal drivers – our first real experience of Peruvian drivers, and it is not very positive.  The city has traffic lights and stop signs, but they appear to serve no purpose other than street furniture, as taxi’s, tuktuks, trucks, busses and cars all jostle for position in the traffic-choked streets.  I have discovered that since large cylinder motorcycles are very rare in South America, and can make a pretty loud noise when revved hard in closed street environments, a little assertive driving and frequent use of the horn can get a little respect and some extra space on the roads.  It has to be said that the bike is bigger than some Daewoo Tico taxi’s which are usually the most aggressive drivers.

The hotel was sadly the most attractive part of this town….and the topiary at the end of the pool area the only attractive thing that I took a photo of during my brief stay.

Hotel topiary..sadly the most attarctive thing I saw in Chiclayo

Huanchaco to Chiclayo – 200 miles:  More cool desert and Pre-Inca Ruins of ChanChan

Today was a short day to take us to the beach.  Again setting out to the south and encountering flat, featureless sandy and dusty desert. The wind had dropped from yesterday’s gale, but in its place a thick sea fog was threatening to blanket the landscape.  In some parts, especially close to villages, irrigation had turned the desert green and not only fruit and vegetables for local consumption were grown but also sugar cane, asparagus and artichokes for export markets.  It is always amazing to see what a little water can do for a desert.  We later learned (see below in Nasca section) that they bring in seaweed as a natural fertilizer to create a soil substrate.

But the mist persisted and with temperatures no higher than 22C, wind chill and the grey skies against the colourless sandy desert, and long, boring, straight, flat roads, it was almost a relief to see the cement works emerge from the  clouds, silhouetted against more clouds….sad person that I am!!

We passed through numerous villages or small towns, each lining the main road in a jagged line of mud brick, concrete block, timber frame and corrugated tin roof dwellings, usually single story, and unfinished.  Incremental construction is evident as reinforcing bars used on concrete pillar construiction protrude out of the temporary roof, indicating that in some point in the future another layer of the building will be added.

On the road to Huanchaco - typical mud brick village in the desert

As we approached Huanchaco the mist lifted and temperature rose to a pleasant upper 20’s C, and the road led along the sea front.  Clearly this is a pleasing tourist location for both local and foreign travellers, with numerous bars and restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops to pass the hours away.  There was even a pier leading out into the sea, looking very Victorian.

Victorian pier in Huanchaco

One curiosity was the reed boats, or caballitos (“Little horses”) that the Huanchaco fishermen use. If you have read the books by Thor Heyerdahl relating to the theory that the ancient Egyptians actually travelled by reed boats, “Ra” to the South American continent then you could almost believe it possible when you see these little boats being launched into the surf.

Caballitos - Reed fishing boats

But the principle reason to be in Huanchaco was to see the  ChanChan ruins.  A UNESCO World Heritage site (one of a dozen or more we are seeing), it extends across 20 sq kms, although only a very small portion has been excavated and partially restored.  Chan Chan is a Chimu civilization site from around 1,200 to 1,470AD when it was overrun by the Inca’s.  It is estimated that the population was as much as 35,000, so a very significant city. The last of the 9 kings was captured by the Inca’s and taken into captivity.  Although the walls are made of mud brick, quite a lot has survived and the best parts restored.

walkway through Chan Chan ruins

Depending on the height, which is between 3 and 5 metres, some of the walls have sloped sides.  You can see the mud brick core on  some openings.  Seemingly while other structures in the area have been completely demolished in the frequent earthquakes, these walls have withstood 700 years.

Mid brick core of higher walls

Some walls are decorated with animal or bird motifs at the base, layers in the centre and plain at the top representing the land, sea and sky.

Chan Chan Wall Motif - squirrel (land), Lines (Sea) and open space (sky)

And one wall I found particularly interesting was the “fish calendar”.  A multiple panel frieze with rising and falling fish figures in a band representing the tides, and also fish facing in different directions indicating the reversal of the current at different times of the year…the cold Humboldt current and the warm Niña current bringing different fish.

Fish Calendar showing warm and cold currents by fish direction

Each subsequent king built his own palace and large plaza for gatherings.  Restoration is complete in one of them.

Plaza in front of king's palace

Details of wall patterns in tax collectors' offices - Chan Chan

Eight of the 9 kings were buried here in multi-chamber graves along with wives, concubines, food and other provisions for the journey to the afterlife.  Nothing of the burial chambers was left to see.  All in all a very interesting site, but left me a little wanting for more detail.

After the guided tour of Chan Chan we visited the museum.  This was equally less than remarkable, small and poorly stocked with artefacts.   Several mock-up models and scenes took the place of well documented tools, lifestyles etc. Metal working seemed to be fairly advanced, but the Chimu had not invented the wheel.

Huanchaco – Caraz: 200 Miles: Time to get dirty again

After several days of less-than-inspiring, essentially featureless desert, today was a day to change everything.  We started the day by driving along the beach heading south.  As we drove past the ruins at Chan Chan, with a pleasant 20C temperature, the sea mist began to roll in from the cool pacific Humbolt current dropping both the temperature and visibility substantially.  Passing through a few small, non–descript villages like the ones we had seen all the way from the Ecuadorian border, a collection of mud brick, clay brick and concrete block dwellings and shops set back from the main road; some were painted, some rendered with a plaster of concrete screed, but most just bare brick and not very attractive having no commonality or semblance of style, texture or colour.  We also passed some settlements which were no more than rush-matting screens lashed together with a similar screen for the roof, supported by wooden poles.  It is hard to imagine that people actually live here without water, sanitation or electricity.  But the evidence of the trash around the dwellings and clothes hung to dry indicates that live there they do.

We have yet not seen what I would consider an attractive city since our arrival.  Chiclayo was a chaotic mixture of buildings, roads, and seething mass of people scattered across the barren desert with little that I could see to recommend it.  I am told it exists because of the Sipan Royal Tombs for the Sican civilization, which because of my delayed arrival (see previous section), I did not get to visit.  Perhaps I would have been more charitable ion my assessment had I spent time to get to know the city and people more.  Huanchaco was pleasant along the sea front, but one or two streets back from the beach, the ramshackle buildings and litter strewn streets were less than inviting.  A brightly painted façade hiding a dull interior.  My conclusion therefore is that oit appears that urban planners and architects must be in very short supply as the evidence of their professions is in short supply.

Today’s ride began as yesterday’s had ended, in a barren desert, but as we drove 100 miles south to our first turning into the mountains, there was evidence of irrigation on an industrial scale producing sugar cane, asparagus and artichokes, the latter two almost certainly for export markets.  At the same time the landscape began to change, and the mountains which we had seen on the horizon yesterday began to appear as rocky icebergs protruding through a sea of sand.  The sand crept up the flanks like wind-driven snow banks and the total effect was magical.

Wind blown sand draped against mountain ranges emerging from desert floor

More and newer cars indicated that the area had been prospering more than the areas to the north, probably as a consequence of the agricultural exploitation.

And so to the purpose of today’s little ride.  If we had been heading south, we would have continued along the Pan American Highway through the barren desert landscape which had accompanied us now for 3 days.  Instead after 100 miles of coastal desert plan, we headed inland towards Caraz via the Canyon del Pato, or “Duck Canyon”. This took us into the coincidence of two mountain chains, or “cordillera” which along with many others, make up the Andes mountains.  In this case the Cordillera Blanca and Negra (White and Black chains)converge near a town of Caraz, and the Canyon del Pato is a 100 mile canyon with the respective mountains getting closer and closer in a deep, steep sided gorge.  Some of the peaks reach 6,000 metres in height and their snow-capped summits are visible above the canyon walls.

Canyon del Pato before leaving the black top

The last 60 miles is all off road, and proper technical riding in places, forcing the bike rider to be standing on the foot pegs for almost the entire distance.  And with an average speed through the rocks, gravel and deep sand of only 15-20 mph, it took more than 4 hours to complete.

Village church in remote Canyon del Pato

Martin riding over one of many bridges in Canyon del Pato

The first half was very similar to the barren desert we had left on the coast, with the steep sided mountain flanks devoid of vegetation, but with some small patches of home grown crops in the valley floor.  The similarity with the High Himalayas approaching the Tibet Plateau was immediate from my biking trip 3 years ago.  Roland, if you are reading this, you will know what I mean!

The surface was essentially a solid rock foundation for 30 miles.  The road was cut through in the early 1950’s and intended for a railway to service the mining operations along the canyon, and also the small villages.  But by 1970 after a series of earthquake-induced landslides it was abundantly clear that the cost and effort of maintaining this lifeline was too much.  And so with only the bare rock surface left and remnants of numerous landslides to punctuate the route we gradually made our slow and painful way up to the mid way village.

Canyon del Pato - rocky surface of first 30 miles part

Monica (front), Martin (Middle) and David (back) in Canyon del Pato

The second half was quite different on account of the change in rock type as we ventured deeper into the canyon.  The rocky surface had now given place to an essentially gravel and sand surface, quite different to drive on.  There were also 35 tunnels to pass through.  Some tunnels were just a few tens of metres, while others were several hundred metres in length, single track (from the railway), sometimes containing curves so that you could not see the exit and pitch dark.  If a truck or bus meets you half way, there is not room for both…..and with the dust kicked up by the tyres, you can hardly see it coming. This photo was taken by Drew…thanks for sharing, buddy!

Tunnels and buses - an intersting mixture of challenges on a sandy surface

The constant wind whips up dust all along the route, but especially the second half, which collects in the tunnels and forms a deep, sandy, dusty top surface.  So long as you keep in the tyre tracks of the occasional buses and trucks along the route, you can be fairly stable in your progress along the tunnel.  But passing from bright sunlight into a dark tunnel, often with dust from the bike or truck in front reducing visibility to just a few metres, it was easy to get into the centre of the single track and be deep in a fine, talcum powder-like dust with no grip and both back and front wheels going sideways.

There were several dropped bikes, but nothing serious.  My riding partner, Monika, dropped her bike as she stopped to let a van pass the other way.  At zero speed it was not in any way a serious drop, but the angle of the bike was such that it was impossible for a single person to recover.  Our leader circled back to help, as did I, but in doing so, attempting to execute a U-turn in gravel, downhill, I dropped my bike too.  No big deal, no damage, carry on!

Shiny side no longer facing upwards!

Emerging from the 35th and final tunnel the world changes.  The last 12 miles into Caraz were some of the best black top tarmac in the world, with a series of swooping curves that bring a smile to the face of the happy biker.  The landscape also changes.  No longer the barren steep sided canyon walls, but now we are on a high plateau with fields of crops and cows grazing on the grassy verges.  Arriving at the basic
hotel in Caraz, tired, dusty, dirty and thankful for another safe day, we threw ourselves down onto some comfortable arm chairs on the patio, drank a beer, ate a cheese sandwich thoughtfully provided by one of the three elderly sisters who run the establishment.

Just about everyone was worn out by the day’s riding.  Even the most experienced off-road riders looked absolutely beaten down by the stress of the ride, 4 hours of jolting the body and requirement for intense concentration throughout.  A quick shower, walk to basic dinner in the very limited culinary offerings of Caraz, and an early night.

Caraz – Barranca – 200 Miles:  A world apart.

After yesterday’s arduous riding, today was an absolute dream, and more than made up for the efforts of getting here and taking a detour from the more direct Pan American Highway.  Caraz is situated at about 2,200 metres.  The road out of town continued to be good quality black top asphalt, and with numerous turns and switchbacks rose up to 4,100 meters in elevation (about 13,350 feet).  Snow-capped peaks were all around, but the sloping valley floor was green and fertile with plenty of evidence of animal grazing even at this altitude.

13,350 feet from caraz to Barranca

We were advised of the effects of altitude sickness, but no-one seemed to be bothered by it as we were only at high altitude for an hour or so before dropping from over 4,000 metres to sea level in about 80 miles of twisting, winding, switchbacks through brightly painted mountain villages and traditionally dressed villagers all in the Sunday
best having attended church in the morning.

Descent from mountains to Barranca - switchbacks and spectacular views

This was probably one of the best riding days we have had so far on the trip.  The temperature at the summit had dropped to around 13C, but warmed up by the time we dropped to 1,000 metres (3300 feet) to upper 20;s, only to fall again as we approached the cool Pacific Ocean wind as we neared the coastal plain. Below 1,000 metres the landscape again changed to barren rocky desert, with a keen cool wind.

Changing back to desert but still green in the valley

Arriving at the Pan American again, we took a brief detour to the Chimu fortress at Paramonga.  As a pre-Inca fortified settlement, main entirely of mud bricks, it dominates both the valley access and also sea-board approaches.  Apparently it is 1,200 years old, but with very little evidence of maintenance or preservation it has suffered from graffiti artists through the ages.

Chimu fort from the PanAmerican near Barranca

Surrounding view from top of Chimu fortress

There were no sign boards to provide an historical context or explain the various chambers and rooms of the fortress, but it was fairly impressive and must have been more so over a 1,000 years ago. Compared with Chan Chan, it was more impressive I think.

The city of Barranca is just another non-descript settlement with a mixture of new and old buildings without much attempt to preserve
historic context, or give a modern feel. Just another traffic-choked, not very clean town.  We stayed in the best hotel in town, which was just fine, except for  the all night throbbing music/noise from three blocks away

Barranca to Nasca: 400 Miles : A long ride into history

Barranca does not make my top ten places to revisit.  Today we have an early start, 7:30, to make some progress south and arrive at Nazca by mid-afternoon if possible.  The initial road south along the Pan American Highway was much as we had seen for the past few days…. Cool and misty in the early morning.  Occasionally as we ascended some small hills, maybe 300-400 metres, out of the dry, sandy, desert plain, we would be in thick cloud with very little visibility.  Like Mexico, the roadside is punctuated with small shrines to those who have lost their lives along this thoroughfare.  At times the shrines are in large groups indicating a major accident, perhaps a bus. One can immediately understand how this can happen in thick fog with too much speed, or at night by falling asleep in the monotony of a featureless, dark desert.  We pass alongside the coast for most of the first 100 miles or so, often with views of crashing waves against a sandy shore.

Crashing waves along the beach besides Pan American south of Barranca

Yesterday coming south from Lima we saw some beach resort developments, but with a cold sea and cool wind for much of the year, I question just how popular they will be?

About 100 miles south of Lima the Pan American turns inland near Chincha Alta, gradually rising from sea level through a series of hills and valleys.  The landscape changes little with sandy desert dominating the views.

Pan American approaching Nasca

We stopped at Chincha Alta in a very nice restaurant for lunch.  As we passed, I spotted linen tablecloths and napkins, and some well-dressed waiters.  Just the sort of place a grubby motorcyclist should frequent, still covered with the dust from Duck Canyon two days ago! There had been other places to stop, but the deep sand on the edge of the road had precluded an earlier lunch break as I was not sure Icould park without dropping the bike or getting bogged down in a parking lot!  But parked on a good hard standing, in front of a good restaurant in full view of the Pan American, we quickly gathered another 10 of our group passing by.  Asparagus soup, good lasagne, excellent dessert trolley and espresso coffee…what more could a man need?  It was worth turning around and coming back!

And then, spotting a dozen large, foreign motorcycles outside the restaurant, a local TV and Radio director, Herbert Martinez Garcia, stopped for lunch and asked for an interview about who we were and where we were going.  As the only fluent Spanish speaker I was duly nominated to do the interview.  I do not know if it was on the TV last night or will be in the future, but the interview and photographs lasted nearly half an hour!

Heading further inland and at higher elevations we encountered one
of the most bizarre pieces of scenery I have ever seen.  Deep gorges between steep sided but rounded hills, devoid of any vegetation.   The exposed rock faces showed a jumbled mixture of both angular and rounded rocks and can only be explained as a terminal moraine from ancient glaciers.  But although I have seen these before, to see them several hundred metres high was a geological surprise….zzzzzz sorry.   At only 1,300 feet above sea level, passing through the hills into a higher valley plain, things changed again.  No longer dry, sandy desert, but now a vast plain of angular rock fragments lying over a flat hard surface.  And so it continued thus all the way to Nazca.

Nazca is a tourist town to serve the famous Nazca lines.  It is spelled both NASCA and NAZCA within a few metres of road signs in deliberate recognition that the native Quechua language has no “Z” sound or letter, while the Spanish version does.  The square is attractive with fountains and new church, but the rest of the town is similar to what we have seen elsewhere…a mixture of old, new and not very attractive buildings with no semblance of planning process or architectural harmony.

Nazca central square

Nazca town shotReady to take off for Nazca lines

Nasca/Nazca – Lines, lithoglyphs and a thousand years of desert burials   

Our rest day in Nazca allows us to see the two main features….the Nazca Lines and the Chauchilla burial grounds. Our tour van picked us up at 09:00 to take us to the local airport, built to serve the tourist traffic.  There is another airport which is soon to be under construction to serve international flights.  Having signed in, been weighed and then selected to fly having been matched with weights of fellow passengers, we boarded the Cessna 207, 5 passenger plane for the 40 minute flight over the Nazca Lines and Lithoglyphs.


Ready to take off for Nazca lines

No-one really knows what purpose these features serve, but it is popularly believed that they were constructed by the Nazca civilization, from 400 – 600 AD for some kind of religious purpose to communicate with their celestial god or gods.  The lines were first documented in the late 1920’s when the first aeroplanes flew over the Nazca desert to document the agricultural activity of Peru. Lines, and pictures of birds, a whale, monkey, spider and hands are all created by moving the angular iron-stained rocks which cover the valley floor
into neat piles at the side of the pattern being created.  From the ground the pictures are not visible, but from the air, they stand out clearly.

Intersecting lines on Nasca plain


Humming bird


Erik Von Daniken in his 1970’s book “chariots of the Gods” postulated
that these are clearly signs of an advanced alien race and that the straight lines must be some kind of intergalactic airport.  He says this because the only way to appreciate the symbols is from the sky.

Where water is pumped from the 6 metre deep aquifer to the surface and irrigation is installed, fields produce cotton, corn, sugar cane, paprika and prickly pear cactus.  It is the latter that is most curious, as it is only grown for the purpose of attracting a parasite – the Cochinilla (“little pig”) beetle.  This is more popularly known in English as cochineal, a colouring agent used in cosmetics and food dyes, but derived from the beetle which thrives on the prickly pear cactus.

Prickly pear plantation - about 1 year old

The "Cochinilla" beetle - a parasite on the prickly pear cactus

The dry desert soil is prepared with seaweed brought in from the coast and ploughed into the sand to create a substrate in which seeds are sown.  Two crops a year are possible with irrigation.

Mining for gold, silver and copper is the other big activity, but largely by small time operators. There are 55,000 registered miners in Peru!  These metals have been mined for more than a 1,000 years and mining trails crisscross the hill sides.

The Chauchilla burial grounds are located 25kms outside of Nasca on a broad flat plain between low hills. It has been the site of burials from 400 AD and the Nasca culture.  Later the Guari culture took over from the Nasca’s in around 600 AD only to be replaced by the Ichincha culture around 1,000 AD.  The Ichincha are the central/southern Peru equivalent of the Chimu of Chan Chan fame in Huanchaco.  In 1470 the Inca’s eventually conquered the Chimu and scattered them across the land. All three of the earlier cultures used Chauchilla as a burial site on account of the dry desert soil being perfect for mummification and preservation.  It is estimated that as many as 20,000 mummies are buried here, although the site was only discovered by accident when an intense flash flood uncovered some of the tombs in the 1950’s. The tombs are individual for important people, or collective for family groups.  The mummies were bound by ropes in a foetal position and placed in a mud brick lined chamber
between 2 and 3 metres in depth.  The type and colour of woven cloth robes was an indication of status, as was the length of hair, which could be as long as 2 metres.  The mud brick walls were built such that they would withstand earthquakes and not collapse. Sadly after discovery there were many grave robbers and artefact collectors and the whole site is littered with bone fragments.  Even now there is little security and just about anyone could literally walk up and steal from the prepared tombs open to the public.

Chauchilla burial site - Nazca desert

two mummies with long hair

Dessecated mummy in burial chamber

We were told that there is a plan to cover the tombs in the next few months with glass walls, not only to preserve what is there but also as a security measure.

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